Mercury — sometimes called quicksilver — is a natural metal. It’s a shiny, silver liquid that can evaporate into an invisible gas. Since you can’t see it, it’s easy to breathe it in without knowing it. When mercury combines with other chemical elements, it creates compounds, or chemical mixtures. When people come in contact with mercury in the environment, it is often with compounds. It’s very important to dispose of (get rid of) mercury and mercury compounds properly, or they can wind up contaminating (polluting) soil, water, and air.
What products might have mercury in them?
People have used mercury throughout history — for everything from making hats to making medicine. Now that experts know it can be dangerous, it’s used less often. But it’s still possible to find mercury in a variety of products, including:
- Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL)
- Dental fillings
- Glass thermometers
How can people be exposed to mercury?
Mercury is toxic to people — especially children. In the United States, the most common way to be exposed (come in contact with) to mercury is by eating fish or shellfish that have high levels of mercury.
You can also get sick from:
- Touching it
- Breathing it in
- Drinking contaminated water
How can mercury affect my health?
Exposure to mercury can cause mercury poisoning, which can damage many body systems, particularly the brain and kidneys. Brain damage from mercury poisoning can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- Tremors (trembling)
- Psychosis (losing touch with reality)
- Changes in vision or hearing
- Memory loss
- Loss of appetite (not feeling hungry)
- Feeling irritated
Symptoms of mercury exposure can vary depending on:
- How mercury gets into your body
- How much mercury gets into to your body
- How long you’re exposed to mercury
Did you know ?
The Mad Hatter character in Alice in Wonderland got his name from mercury. In old times, hat makers got "mad-hatter" syndrome, or mercury poisoning, because the mercury they used in making felt hats damaged their brains. Thankfully, now we know how dangerous exposure to mercury can be.
Explore the links below to learn more about mercury, including what you can do to protect yourself — and what experts are doing to keep you safe.
Enviro-Health Links - Mercury and Human Health (National Library of Medicine) - Resources on basic information, regulations, and specific health problems related to mercury.
Fish Consumption Advisories (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) - Advisories by the Environmental Protection Agency on fish and mercury consumption.
Mercury/Toxics Effects (National Park Service) - National Park Service's information about mercury in ecosystems, the impact, and how the toxins are monitored.
ToxFAQs for Mercury (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - FAQ fact sheet with answers to health questions about mercury.
Vaccine Safety: Thimerosal (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - Information on Thimerosal, associated vaccines, and links to related research.
Mercury (Medline Plus - National Library of Medicine) - Information on mercury poisoning: symptoms, steps to take when exposed, what to expect, and prognosis.
Mercury: Health Effects (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) - Various effects of different kinds of mercury: methylmercury, organic and inorganic, and elemental.
Mercury Quick Finder (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) - Links to information on mercury: EPA's role, publications, and protecting yourself.
The Road to Toxicity (ACADIA Learning for Participatory SCIENCE) - Downloadable board game to teach facts about Mercury and its effect on the Environment.
Mercury and Our Health (National Library of Medicine) - An animation about mercury, where it is found, how it is used, and the effects on human health.
Mercury in Watersheds (ACADIA Learning for Participatory SCIENCE) - Lesson plans and activities to explore why mercury ends up in our watersheds, how mercury moves through the environment, and potential risks to the environment and human health.
Mercury Middle School Activities (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) - A series of classroom activities to help students understand where Mercury is found and how it can effect our health.