The Health Effects Of Mercury Poisoning

By:    Published: June 11, 2012

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Mercury is an element that is used in many products and can be found in many environments. Unfortunately, too much exposure to this element can cause mercury poisoning, which can lead to a number of serious health risks. Here’s the information you need to know about the effects of mercury poisoning on your body and how to keep yourself out of danger.

Mercury Exposure

Mercury can be found in a number of environments and products. Here are some of the main ways in which individuals could be exposed to mercury:

  • Misuse of certain products, including thermometers, batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and dental fillings
  • Eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury
  • Release of mercury during dental work or medical treatments
  • Breathing in air vapors near a spill or incinerator where mercury-containing fuels are used
  • Skin contact with certain products or breathing air in a contaminated workplace, which could include health services, dental services or chemical management)

Potential Health Effects Of Mercury Poisoning

Several symptoms may appear when a person has mercury poisoning. Those symptoms include:

  • Muscle weakness, twitching or atrophy
  • Tremors
  • Impaired speech, hearing or walking
  • Lack of coordination
  • A tingling or stinging feeling, most commonly in the feet, hands and mouth area
  • Impaired peripheral vision
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Emotional changes, including mood swings, irritability or nervousness
  • Skin rashes or dermatitis

Several different areas and systems in the body can be affected by mercury poisoning. Children exposed to mercury have demonstrated several health problems as a result of mercury poisoning, including issues with memory, attention, cognitive thinking, language, fine motor skills and visual spatial skills. These kinds of problems with cognitive function may also develop in adults with mercury poisoning.

When a person is exposed to very high levels of mercury, the health risks may extend beyond cognitive function issues to problems with the kidneys or gastrointestinal tract, respiratory failure or even death. There are some concerns that mercury poisoning also increases the risk of cancer, but more research is needed to confirm these theories.

In addition, it’s very important for pregnant women to avoid mercury exposure. Research has found that the nervous system of an unborn fetus seems to be much more significantly affected by mercury poisoning than that of an adult.

Risk Factors

There are a few risk factors that affect an individual’s likelihood of developing mercury poisoning. Unborn fetuses and young children are the most susceptible to the health effects of mercury poisoning. For example, a pregnant woman may exhibit little to no symptoms of mercury poisoning, but her baby may be born with severe disabilities.

In addition to age, a person’s lifestyle and environment have the largest impact of their risk for developing mercury poisoning. Since eating contaminated fish or shellfish is the most common cause of mercury poisoning, those who regularly eat these foods may be at a greater risk for the condition. The location of a person’s home or work may also play a role since dental offices, health services and chemical management facilities often deal with the handling of mercury containing fuels, products or technologies.

Treatment

In cases of severe mercury poisoning, it may be difficult to treat certain irreversible health effects, such as kidney failure. However, there are some treatment options for those with less extreme cases of mercury poisoning. If mercury has been breathed in through the lungs, a breathing tube may be inserted into the lungs, or the mercury may even be suctioned out of the lungs. Those who have ingested mercury may be given intravenous fluids or activated charcoal to soak up mercury in the stomach. There are also some medications that may be used to remove mercury from the body and to relieve symptoms associated with mercury poisoning.

Prevention

The following are some of the best ways to avoid mercury exposure:

  • Be careful when eating fish. Make sure the fish and shellfish that you consume are not from areas which tend to have higher mercury levels, such as urban ponds.
  • Use a digital thermometer instead of a mercury thermometer. In many places, mercury thermometers are now illegal to sell.
  • Be careful when using products which contain mercury, such as CFLs. If you use these products, find out how to properly clean them up in case one breaks.
  • Follow safety precautions at work if you are employed in the dental, health or chemical fields.
  • If you live near a plant that burns or uses mercury-containing fuels, contact your local government to ensure that they are following all industry safety standards and health codes.

Conclusion

Mercury poisoning is a serious condition with harmful health effects. Fortunately, it is relatively rare and is usually easy to avoid. Make sure you take the proper steps to help protect you and your family from mercury exposure.

Sources:

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