Mercury and Its Impacts
Mercury is a naturally occurring metallic element that is found in trace amounts in air, water, and soil. It comes in three forms—elemental, inorganic, and organic.
- Elemental mercury is familiar to most of us as the heavy, silvery liquid metal used in thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, and some switches.
- Inorganic mercury compounds are created when mercury is combined with other elements, such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen. It is used in some medications and industrial compounds.
- Organic mercury compounds are formed when mercury combines with carbon. The most common organic mercury compound, methylmercury, is produced mainly by bacteria in water and soil.
People can be exposed to mercury in a number of ways. They may come in contact with mercury from broken thermometers or other spills in the home or workplace. They may breathe in airborne mercury produced by coal-fired power plants, mining operations, or other industrial sources. By far the most common route of mercury exposure in humans is eating fish contaminated by methylmercury, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
All forms of mercury are poisonous to humans. The severity of effects depends largely on the amount and timing of exposure. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of mercury vapor can cause harmful effects on the nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems, and the kidneys. Chronic exposure can permanently damage the brain and kidneys. Because fetuses, infants, and children are still developing, they are particularly sensitive to the effects of methylmercury on the nervous system, even at low levels of exposure, and data are evolving in support of a link between methylmercury exposure and increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease at any age.
Pollution prevention (P2) is any activity that reduces or eliminates the creation of pollutants or waste at the source. Instead of focusing on how to dispose of waste, P2 focuses on not creating the waste in the first place. It can include reductions in or elimination of the use of materials, processes, or practices. Preventing mercury pollution entails preventing exposure to this toxic substance and requires the shared efforts of government, businesses, and individuals. Learn more.
What to Do If You Have a Spill
Mercury spills can result from broken thermometers, fluorescent bulbs, and other mercury-containing items. Learn what you should and should not do if you have a mercury spill and how to properly dispose of mercury here.