Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in the earth’s crust. It is emitted from volcanic activity and weathering of rocks but it is mainly the result of human activity, such as coal-fired power stations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.
According to the United States Environmental Protection (EPA), these include:
- The form of mercury (for example, methylmercury or elemental (metallic) mercury)
- The amount of mercury in the exposure
- The age of the person exposed (unborn infants are the most vulnerable);
- How long the exposure lasts
- How the person is exposed – breathing, eating, skin contact, etc.
- The health of the person exposed.
According to Harvard Health, pregnant women and young children are advised to avoid eating certain fish and to limit overall fish consumption to two servings per week.
“Fish, especially the larger predator fish, concentrate the mercury in their bodies as they consume smaller creatures,” warns Harvard Health.
According to the health body, the highest levels are seen in swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and albacore (white) tuna.
“A good strategy for adult men is to limit consumption of fish highest in mercury to once per week, and feel free to eat other fish on a regular basis,” it advises.
How to treat mercury poisoning
Treatments primarily aim to stop mercury exposure to the body.
According to the Winchester Hospital, chelation therapy is a common first-line treatment for mercury exposure.
Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical known as a chelating agent into the bloodstream.
The chelating agent combines with mercury to help remove it from the body.
It is important to reduce your risk of mercury poisoning where possible.
First and foremost, you should avoid using metallic mercury for any purpose, advises the Winchester Hospital.
“If you must use metallic mercury, keep it safely stored in a leak-proof container in a secure space, such as a locking closet,” advises the health body.
Another key preventative measure is to trade in old thermometers or barometers containing mercury for new ones that do not, it adds.
Other key tips include:
- Carefully handle and dispose of items containing mercury, such as thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs
- Do not vacuum or heat spilled mercury
- Teach children not to play with silver liquids
- Properly dispose of old medications that contain mercury
- Keep mercury-containing medications away from children
- Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your local public health or natural resources department
- Limit fish intake to recommended quantities and avoid fish known to be contaminated by mercury.
The good news is, as the world weens itself off burning coal, mercury exposure will become less of a threat.
“Coal contains mercury and other hazardous air pollutants that are emitted when the coal is burned in coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers and household stoves,” explains the WHO.