120797 Health Library | Health and Wellness | Wellmont Health System
  • Mercury Toxicity

    (Mercury Poisoning)

    Definition

    Mercury toxicity occurs when a person is exposed to mercury. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal. Either short- or long-term exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems. If you think you have been exposed to mercury, contact your doctor immediately.
    Mercury has several forms, including:
    • Metallic mercury—a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid that becomes a colorless, odorless gas when heated
    • Methylmercury—a chemical made up of mercury combined with carbon; mainly produced by microscopic organisms in the water and soil
    • Mercury salts—white powders or crystals formed when mercury combines with elements such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen
    Metallic mercury and methylmercury are better able to reach the brain and more harmful than mercury salts.

    Causes

    Mercury toxicity may occur when you are exposed to toxic amounts of mercury due to:
    • Breathing airborne mercury vapors
    • Eating contaminated food (usually fish or shellfish)—Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.
    • Drinking water contaminated with mercury (rare cause of poisoning)
    • Practicing religious or folk medicine rituals that include mercury
    Metallic mercury can be found in consumer products, such as fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, thermostats, and old thermometers. Mercury, combined with other elements, is also found in some types of dental fillings. Research has not shown, though, that this type of filling is harmful to people.

    Risk Factors

    A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Anyone can develop mercury toxicity as a result of mercury exposure. Certain people are more likely to be exposed to mercury. The following factors increase your chances of being exposed to mercury. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
      Working in:
      • Dental services
      • Health services
      • Chemical industry
      • Other industries that use mercury
    • Practicing rituals that include mercury
    • Eating over 6 ounces of albacore (white) tuna per week
    • Eating over 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish that is considered lower in mercury (eg, shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, catfish)
    In addition, pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and young children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure.
    Widespread Toxicity in Infant
    Infection in baby true
    Fetuses and young children are more vulnerable to the effects of mercury poisoning.
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

    Symptoms

    The nervous system is very sensitive to the effects of mercury. Exposure to mercury can result in:
    • Brain damage
    • Kidney damage
    • Lung damage
    • Digestive system problems
    Mercury can cause harmful effects before symptoms develop. It is important to contact your physician immediately if you think you have been exposed to mercury, regardless of your symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include:
    • Tremors
    • Changes in vision or hearing
    • Insomnia
    • Weakness
    • Memory problems
    • Headache
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Increases in blood pressure or heart rate
    • Eye irritation
    • Irritability
    • Shyness
    • Nervousness
    • Breathing problems
    • Painful mouth
    • Abdominal pain
    • Fever and/or chills
    • Acrodynia (symptoms include itching, swelling, and flushing; pink-colored palms and soles of feet; excessive perspiration; rashes; irritability; fretfulness; sleeplessness; joint pain; and weakness)
    • Trouble learning in school for children
    Damage from mercury passed from a mother to her unborn fetus may include:
    • Brain damage
    • Intellectual disability
    • Lack of coordination
    • Blindness
    • Seizures
    • Inability to speak

    Diagnosis

    Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
    Tests may include the following:
    • Blood tests
    • Urine tests
    • Scalp hair analysis

    Treatment

    Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:

    Chelation Therapy

    Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical, or chelating agent , into the bloodstream. The chelating agent combines with mercury to help remove it from the body. Chelating agents may be given by pill or by injection.
    For recent ingestion, the doctor may induce vomiting, pump out the stomach (gastric lavage), or give polythiol resins to bind with the mercury.

    Prevention

    To help reduce your chances of getting mercury toxicity, take the following steps:
    • Avoid using metallic mercury for any purpose
    • If you must use metallic mercury, keep it safely stored in a leak-proof container in a secure space (eg, a locking closet)
    • Trade in old thermometers or barometers containing mercury for new ones that do not
    • Carefully handle and dispose of items containing mercury (eg, thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs)
    • Do not vacuum or heat spilled mercury
    • Teach children not to play with silver liquids
    • Properly dispose of old medications containing mercury
    • Keep mercury-containing medications away from children
    • Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your local public health or natural resources department
    • Limit fish intake to recommended quantities and avoid fish known to be contaminated by mercury:
      • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.
      • Eat up to 12 ounces (two meals) of fish and shellfish considered lower in mercury (eg, shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish) per week.
      • Eat up to 6 ounces (one meal) of albacore (white) tuna per week.
      • If you want to eat local fish, check to make sure the water is not contaminated. In general, limit your intake of local fish to 6 ounces.
    If you spill a small amount of metallic mercury (eg, a broken thermometer):
    • Remove children from the area.
    • DO NOT use a vacuum cleaner.
    • Carefully roll the bead of mercury onto a sheet of paper or suck it up with an eye dropper.
    • Place the bead in a bag or airtight container.
    • Contact your local health department to find out how to dispose of the mercury and paper or eye dropper.
    • Ventilate the room to the outside.
    • Use fans to speed ventilation for at least one hour.
    If you find a larger amount of metallic mercury (eg, a jar of metallic mercury), call your local health department for professional assistance in safe and appropriate disposal. If any amount of mercury greater than that found in a fever thermometer spills, call for help and immediately leave the area of the spill until responsible and prepared authorities arrive to assist in cleanup. If your health department is unavailable, your fire department may be able to provide emergency assistance or connect you with the local “Hazmat” team.

    RESOURCES

    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/

    Office of Hazardous Materials Safety http://hazmat.dot.gov/

    US Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/

    US Food and Drug Administration http://www.fda.gov/

    CANADIAN RESOURCES

    Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index-eng.php/

    Public Health Agency of Canada http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/

    References

    Amalgam (dental filling options). American Dental Association website. Available at: http://www.ada.org/3094.aspx . Accessed December 10, 2010.

    Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine . 16th ed. McGraw Hill; 2005.

    Kelly BC, Ikonomou MG, Higgs DA, Oakes J, Dubetz C. Mercury and other trace elements in farmed and wild salmon from British Columbia, Canada. Environ Toxicol Chem. 2008;27(6):1361-1370.

    National alert: a warning about continuing patterns of metallic mercury exposure. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/alerts/970626.html . Accessed March 12, 2007.

    National alert: a warning about continuing patterns of metallic mercury exposure. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/alerts/970626.html . Accessed February 15, 2006.

    Oken E, Bellinger DC. Fish consumption, methylmercury and child neurodevelopment. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2008;20(2):178-183.

    ToxFAQs for mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts46.html . Accessed March 12, 2007.

    ToxFAQs for mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts46.html . Accessed February 15, 2006.

    What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm110591.htm . Updated November 23, 2009. Accessed August 29, 2011.

    12/10/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Vearrier D, Greenberg MI. Care of patients who are worried about mercury poisoning from dental fillings. J Am Board Fam Med. 2010;23(6):797-798.

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