Effects of Mercury on the Body

Naturally present in water, air, and soil, mercury can have some serious effects on your health. The naturally occurring element is initially in the air and later settles into water or onto land. Certain microorganisms are responsible for the conversion of mercury into methyl mercury, a toxin that builds up in shellfish, fish, and animals that eat fish. Humans are exposed to this methylmercury by eating contaminated shellfish and fish, and this exposure can cause serious complications.

Effects of Mercury on the Body

1. Methylmercury Effects

Exposure to methylmercury occurs when you eat shellfish or fish that may already have high levels of methylmercury in their tissues. You cannot protect yourself from methylmercury exposure completely – due to its widespread presence in the environment, you are bound to have small amounts of methylmercury in your system. The levels are usually too low to cause any health effects, but overexposure can always cause adverse health effects.

Methylmercury acts as a neurotoxin and mercury poisoning can cause many symptoms. For instance, you may have signs including impairment of speech, walking and hearing, along with muscle weakness. You may also experience other problems such as lack of coordination of movements, loss of peripheral vision, and "pins and needles" feelings on your feet, hands, and around the mouth.

Effects on Infants and Children

In children and infants, effects of mercury on the body can be serious. When a pregnant woman eats fish contaminated with methylmercury, it affects infant's growing brain and nervous system. Overexposure can cause serious problems and affect memory, cognitive thinking, language visual spatial skills, and fine motor skills of infants and children.

2. Elemental Mercury

Metallic or elemental mercury can cause serious health effects when you inhale it in and expose your lungs to it. It usually happens when you breathe in an environment where elemental mercury is spilled or a product containing elemental mercury has broken and exposed it to the air. 

Exposure to elemental mercury may cause problems such as insomnia, tremors, headaches, changes in nerve responses, disturbances in sensations, and performance deficit on cognitive function tests. Some people also experience emotional changes, including irritability, mood swings, excessive shyness, or nervousness, while other people experience neuromuscular changes as well, such as muscle atrophy, weakness, and twitching. Talk to your doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms.

3. Effects of Other Mercury Compounds (Organic and Inorganic)

You may also experience serious side effects after being exposed to inorganic mercury. The exposure can damage the nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, and the kidneys. The gastrointestinal tract is first to absorb both organic and inorganic mercury compounds. Once absorbed, the compounds travel through your body and damage other organs. Still, research shows that inorganic mercury compounds take more time to absorb via ingestion as compared to organic mercury compounds.

Effects of mercury on the body can be serious even when you are exposed to inorganic mercury. The list includes mood swings, muscle weakness, memory loss, skin rashes, and mental disturbances. Some people end up damaging their kidneys when they continue to drink water contaminated with inorganic mercury for many years. The inorganic mercury compounds are dangerous when ingested in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL). Be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience these symptoms and suspect mercury poisoning.

How to Reduce Exposure to Mercury

Considering the health effects of mercury, it makes sense to take steps to limit your exposure to both organic and inorganic mercury. You can try many ways to prevent the effects of mercury on the body. Here is what you can do in this regard.

1. Opt for Clean Energy Sources

To limit the amount of mercury in the environment, you should promote the use of clean energy sources and discourage the use of coal. Burning coal of heat and power is the main reason why there is so much mercury in the environment. Not only does coal release mercury in the air, it also releases other hazardous air pollutants that can damage your body.

2. Stop Mercury Mining

Another major source of mercury in the environment is mercury mining.  Any use of mercury in gold mining should also be eliminated because once used, mercury stays in the environment and cannot be destroyed. Health effects of mercury mining are quite serious. Therefore, it is always a better idea to stick to non-mercury gold-extraction techniques.

3. Avoid Non-Essential Mercury-Containing Products

Many products contain mercury, such as lamps, batteries, measuring devices, dental amalgam, pharmaceuticals, and skin-lightening products. When you keep using these products, you just cannot keep mercury from being absorbed by your environment and your body. You should make a conscious effort to stop using these products and replace mercury-containing sphygmomanometers, thermometers, and other products with alternative devices.

Similarly, dental amalgam used in dental industry should also be eliminated, but it seems difficult considering the widespread use of amalgam in all countries. Moreover, mercury is also used in some pharmaceuticals, such as ethyl mercury, but the use is too small to cause serious health effects. However, it is important to raise awareness about the products that contain mercury, so that people could identify its presence and look for alternatives. 

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