There are three different forms of mercury that cause health problems: elemental mercury (also known as liquid mercury or quick silver), inorganic mercury salts and organic mercury. Metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. If heated, it is a colorless, odorless gas. It also combines with other elements to form powders or crystals. Metallic mercury is used in things such as thermometers, dental fillings and batteries. Mercury salts may be used in skin creams and ointments. It's also used in many industries.
Mercury exposure symptoms
Elemental mercury is usually harmless if touched or swallowed. Considerable damage can occur, however, if mercury is made airborne into small droplets and breathed into the lungs. Breathing in elemental mercury will cause symptoms right away (acute) if enough is inhaled. Symptoms will also occur over time (chronic) if little amounts are inhaled every day. If this occurs, symptoms may include:
- Metallic taste
- Difficulty breathing
- Bad cough
- Swollen, bleeding gums
Depending on how much mercury is breathed in, permanent lung damage and death may occur. There also may be long-term brain damage from inhaled elemental mercury.
Unlike elemental mercury, inorganic mercury is usually poisonous when swallowed. Depending on the how much is swallowed, symptoms may include:
- Burning in the stomach and throat
- Bloody diarrhea and vomiting
If inorganic mercury enters your bloodstream, it can attack the kidneys and brain. Permanent kidney damage and failure may occur. A large overdose may cause massive blood and fluid loss from diarrhea, kidney failure and death.
Organic mercury can cause sickness if breathed in, eaten or placed on the skin for long periods of time. Usually organic mercury causes problems over years or decades, not immediately. In other words, being exposed to small amounts of organic mercury every day for years will likely cause symptoms to appear later. Regardless, a single large exposure can also cause problems.
Long-term exposure will likely cause neurological symptoms, including:
- Numbness or pain in certain parts of your skin
- Uncontrollable shaking or tremor
- Inability to walk well; gait difficulties
- Blindness and double vision
- Memory problems
- Seizures and death (with large exposures)
Mercury exposure causes
Mercury in the air settles into water. It can pass through the food chain and build up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish. The nervous system is sensitive to all forms of mercury and exposure to high levels can damage the brain and kidneys. Medical evidence suggests that pregnant women exposed to large amounts of the organic mercury called methylmercury can permanently damage the baby’s developing brain.