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Mercury and its Toxicity

Author: Kayla Otoo

Editors: Rachel Chen, Ken Saito

Artist: Tracy Xu

Mercury is one of the most essential elements in our lives. Mercury (Hg) is considered a transition metal due to its ductile and malleable state, as well as its ability to conduct heat and electricity. It is primarily seen in three different forms: elemental/metallic mercury, inorganic mercury, and organic mercury. While the origins of Mercury are unknown, it was first discovered 3500 years ago by the Egyptians, who believed it could wipe out evil spirits. Today, however, Mercury plays a very different role. It is used in many different industries, from the medical field, where Mercury compounds are used in dental amalgams, to manufacturing, where Mercury is used to create countless products such as thermometers and barometers. 

Although Mercury benefits many aspects of our lives, it poses a significant risk to human health. The WHO recognizes Mercury as one of the top ten chemicals of major public concern. This is mainly because, when Mercury is released into the environment, the toxic methylmercury (a very poisonous form of Mercury), enters the food chain, contaminating our food. Since Mercury is a naturally occurring element, it is found in rock formations, the Earth’s crust, volcanoes, and soil erosion. Additionally, Mercury can arise from human activities, such as burning coal. Many don’t know that over 4,000 metric tons of Mercury exist today in our Earth’s atmosphere. Although Mercury levels have decreased over the centuries, it still poses a tremendous risk.

Elemental Mercury, also called quicksilver, is shiny and silver-white and is a liquid at room temperature. Oftentimes, elemental mercury is seen in thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, and electric switches. When dropped, elemental mercury breaks into minuscule droplets, which can go through cracks or attach to certain materials. At room temperature, elemental mercury evaporates into an invisible, odorless, toxic gas. In this form, Mercury has not yet reacted with other substances. However, when Mercury reacts with another substance, it forms a compound, producing inorganic mercury salts or methylmercury.

Inorganic mercury is abundantly found in our environment as minerals like cinnabar and metacinnabar. Furthermore, inorganic mercury can combine with elements like sulfur and chlorine, then weather to form inorganic salts. Consequently, these inorganic salts are transported in water and thus appear in soil. Today, inorganic compounds are widely seen in many consumer products, such as soaps, creams, and topical antiseptics/disinfectants. Many high-risk occupations, like mining, chemical and metal processing, and electrical equipment manufacturing, also face exposure to Mercury, which is extremely dangerous. In addition to this, many fish and shellfish have high levels of methylmercury, so when people consume these foods, the mercury goes directly into their tissue. 

However, mercury is not just consumed but inhaled too. When high levels of mercury are inhaled, they can cause major damage to the brain, heart, lungs, and immune system in people of all ages. Furthermore, if a pregnant mother is exposed to Methylmercury and it enters her bloodstream, her baby will be at risk of a harmed nervous system at birth. This may affect the child’s ability to think and learn. Mammals are also at risk when exposed to high levels of methylmercury, with consequences including death, reduced reproduction, slower growth and development, and abnormal behavior.

We are all exposed to some level of Mercury every day but it’s when we are exposed to high levels of Mercury that it becomes a problem. Many actions can be taken to prevent human exposure. Firstly, we need to abstain from burning fossil fuels, as they emit large amounts of mercury into our atmosphere. Secondly, mercury should no longer be used in gold mining. Lastly, we need to continue reducing mercury in various products like batteries, thermometers, and lights. If these and other actions are taken, we can tackle the Mercury issue before it becomes an even bigger concern, thus preventing harm to more people than it does now. 

 

Citations:

19 May 2024.

US EPA, OCSPP. “Basic Information about Mercury.” US EPA, 20 Aug. 2015,

www.epa.gov/mercury/basic-information-about-

US EPA, OCSPP. “How People Are Exposed to Mercury.” Www.epa.gov, 26 Aug. 2015,

19 May 2024.

CDC. “Mercury | NIOSH | CDC.” Www.cdc.gov, 3 Dec. 2020,

www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/mercury/default.html#:~:text=Mercury%20is%20used%

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