Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in very small amounts in oceans, rocks, and soil. It becomes airborne when rocks break down, volcanoes erupt, or coal and natural gas are burned as fuel. It also released when mercury containing items are discarded improperly by residents and industries.
Once in the air, mercury can fall with rain and snow, landing on soil or in bodies of water, causing contamination of lakes and rivers. Mercury accumulates in the tissue of fish and other organisms. Eating mercury-contaminated fish is the most common method of human exposure to mercury. Mercury exposure is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women.
Mercury has many unique properties and has been used for a variety of applications, including in thermometers, thermostats and fluorescent light bulbs. Although mercury can be useful in some applications, it poses a very real health risk. We can reduce this risk by properly disposing of mercury-containing waste.
What Are the Human Health Hazards Caused By Mercury?
Mercury affects the human brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. It affects the ability to feel, see, taste and move. Long-term exposure to mercury can result in symptoms that get progressively worse and lead to tremors, tingling, stupor or personality changes.
Women who expect to become pregnant or are pregnant should not eat mercury-contaminated fish. Mercury affects fetal development, preventing the brain and nervous system from developing normally.
Mercury can be taken in through the lungs, mouth or skin. Liquid mercury is constantly giving off vapors that can be inhaled. Small beads of mercury in carpet or drains can give off harmful vapors for a long period of time and must be cleaned up and disposed of properly.
Mercury has many useful properties. Because it is liquid at room temperature, combines easily with other metals, and expands and contracts evenly with temperature changes, mercury has been used in many household, medical, and industrial products. A few examples are:
Fluorescent Light tubes and bulbs, including compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs
Button batteries from watches and hearing aids
Thermostats and switches
Old latex and oil paints (manufactured before August 1990)
Chemistry sets, older toys and games
If you have any of these items in your home, DO NOT throw them in the garbage or pour mercury down the drain. Avoid touching liquid mercury from spills. Prompt, correct clean-up is essential.