Three-Prong Attack: The Different Kinds of Mercury Exposure

Mercury is released naturally from rocks, soil and volcanoes, so you may not consider it to be much of a wellness issue – how can something natural be damaging to your wellbeing? Unfortunately, human activities have supercharged the level of mercury in the atmosphere, and it’s more than environmental wellness that’s suffering. Many sources expose you to mercury, including your food, and this is a major health concern.


Mercury exists in three different forms. There’s elemental mercury, which is a shiny, silver volatile liquid that, when at room temperature, emits a colourless, odourless vapour. Then you have inorganic mercury, which occurs when elemental mercury combines with other elements like sulphur, chlorine or oxygen. This creates compounds known as mercury salts. Finally, there’s organic mercury which consists of compounds, including methyl mercury, that form when elemental mercury combines with carbon. This is the most toxic form of mercury, but none of the varieties break down in the environment, which means all forms can build up in your system. In fact, you still have to be wary of elemental mercury, as the vapour can be carried long distances on wind currents and stay in the atmosphere for long periods of time.


It’s important to know the different forms of mercury because each variety will have a different impact on your health. There are other factors involved, such as the level of exposure and how you are exposed (inhalation, ingestion or skin contact), but you should try to reduce your exposure to all forms of mercury whenever possible. Let’s break those health risks down into the different forms of mercury:


Elemental Mercury: This is somewhat dependant on the length and type of exposure, because if you were to swallow liquid elemental mercury (from a broken fever thermometer, for example) your body would absorb very little mercury. But, if you spill mercury and inhale it, your body would easily absorb the vapour and potentially develop serious health problems. High concentrations of mercury exposure can cause extensive damage to your mouth, lungs and respiratory tract, and can even lead to death from respiratory failure. At low concentrations, long-term exposure can lead to similar symptoms as you would experience from methyl mercury exposure.


Inorganic Mercury Compounds: The main concerns involving this kind of mercury are kidney failure and gastrointestinal damage, but mercury salts are very irritating, and can lead to blisters and ulcers on your lips and tongue. A high amount of exposure can also cause rashes, excessive sweating, irritability, muscle twitching, weakness and high blood pressure.


Organic Mercury Compounds (Methyl mercury): In some degree, methyl mercury accumulates in all fish, but you really need to watch out for predatory fish. You absorb methyl mercury through your digestive tract, which then gets distributed throughout your body. The compound can spend a long time in your brain, and it can also cross the placenta in pregnant women, getting to the foetus and building up in the baby’s brain and other tissues. You can also pass on methyl mercury to your child when breastfeeding. As a developing nervous system, as exists in children, is particularly sensitive to methyl mercury, you need to be extremely careful. Though it depends on the level of exposure, your child could experience a decrease in IQ, delayed development in terms of talking and walking, a lack of coordination, blindness and seizures. Don’t forget your wellness either; extreme methyl mercury exposure in adults can manifest as personality changes, tremors, changes in vision, deafness, loss of muscle coordination and sensation, memory loss, intellectual impairment, and even death.

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