What are the dangers of mercury exposure?

Safety Concerns with Mercury Exposure

USGS scientists electrofish on Lookout Creek near the Blue River in Oregon. The fish they collect are analyzed for mercury content.
USGS scientists electrofish on Lookout Creek near the Blue River in Oregon. The fish they collect are analyzed for mercury content.
Photo courtesy of USGS.gov

Not all mercury exposures are equal. How the mercury enters a person's system can matter a lot.

Mercury vapor, whether from industrial exhaust or spills or a broken thermometer, can be extremely damaging to anyone. It's the most dangerous form because it's absorbed through the lungs, allowing much of it to reach the brain. It doesn't take long to experience side effects from inhaling mercury. Ingesting small amounts of mercury, on the other hand, can have little or no effect at all -- on adults.

That's how most people consume mercury: They eat it. Exposure is almost always via fish that have been contaminated with methylmercury -- a form of mercury produced in the bodies of tiny sea life that have ingested the elemental form, deposited in bodies of water when rain or snow carry it down from the atmosphere or across land in contaminated runoff.

As those tiny organisms are eaten by larger fish, and those fish are eaten by larger fish and so on, the methylmercury moves up the food chain. Eventually, it reaches seafood-eating humans. Most humans have at least some mercury in their bodies. But few experience so much exposure that they suffer from side effects.

Few adults, that is. Very young children and fetuses are much more susceptible to mercury poisoning than adults. It's easy enough to keep fish with high mercury content -- typically large predator fish with long life spans, like tile fish, swordfish and king mackerel -- out of the diets of 2-year-olds. The problem, more often, is during pregnancy, when a fetus' developing brain is highly vulnerable to even a miniscule amount of neurotoxin.

And it is something to be concerned about: As recently as 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or EPA estimated that 8 percent of women of child-bearing age could have blood-mercury levels above a safe amount, determined to be 5.8 ug/L, or micrograms per liter [source: EPA]. And what's safe for an adult is not necessarily safe for a fetus -- or an infant, since mercury can also be passed on in breast milk.

Effects of mercury poisoning can include:

  • Cognitive and behavioral disabilities
  • Memory problems
  • Coordination problems
  • Visual-spatial impairment
  • Lung damage (if inhaled)
  • Gastrointestinal damage (if ingested)
  • Kidney damage (at extremely high doses)
  • Death (at extremely high doses)

Luckily, there are ways to reduce the risk of harm. It just takes a little knowledge about where the greatest danger lies.