Mercury is a natural element found in water, air and soil. It occurs in a number of forms, including elemental or metallic, inorganic mercury compounds and organic mercury compounds. When heated, elemental or metallic mercury, is an odorless, colorless gas, making it difficult to detect. Humans are most commonly exposed to methylmercury ─ another highly toxic form ─ by eating fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish.
Dangers of Mercury
Mercury is a highly dangerous element. High-level exposure can cause permanent damage to the brain, kidneys, immune system, heart and lungs. Pregnant women need to exercise additional caution, as high levels of methylmercury in the blood stream of a fetus can damage the developing immune system. The element can also be especially damaging to young children, decreasing their ability to think and learn.
Some of the symptoms of methylmercury poisoning include:
- Diminished coordination
- Conflicting sensations
- Speech, hearing, walking and muscle impairment
Elemental or metallic poisoning is most harmful when it is breathed through the lungs. Symptoms of this type of mercury poisoning may include:
- Tremors, twitching and changes in nerve responses
- Muscle atrophy
High-level exposure may cause kidney impairment, respiratory failure and even death.
Reducing the Release of Mercury
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works to reduce the release of mercury by issuing regulations requiring industries to properly treat and dispose of mercury waste and to decrease mercury releases to our air and water sources. The EPA partners with state, local and tribal governments to create programs to cut the amount of mercury pollution and its subsequent impact. Additionally, the Agency also works with international organizations to help stop the release of mercury in other countries.
Individuals can also do their part to stop the release of mercury by properly disposing of any elemental mercury found in their homes. All mercury-containing products or containers of mercury should be properly packaged, transported and disposed of at a designated collection center. Information on local collection programs can be found here.
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