Mercury is a heavy metal that deserves special emphasis because, although it occurs naturally in the environment, the current high levels of mercury in the air, soil, and water come directly from human sources like landfills and waste processors, dental preparations, power plants, laboratory uses, and manufacturing processes. Although there is debate about the relative toxicity of different mercuric compounds, all forms of mercury are toxic to humans. And so, as the amount of mercury pollution increases in the environment, it becomes more and more necessary to identify and minimize sources of mercury exposure.
Elemental or inorganic mercury can be found in industrial and medical items like dental amalgams or “silver fillings,” light bulbs, thermometers, and batteries.
Methylmercury, an organic form of mercury derived from pollutants, accumulates and concentrates in fish. Species of fish that are long-lived, or are higher up in the food chain, concentrate higher amounts of methylmercury. Another form of organic mercury, ethylmercury, is added as a preservative to medications like eye drops, contact solutions, and certain vaccines.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
- Once in the human body, mercury acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system.
- Exposure to mercury can be particularly hazardous for pregnant women and small children. During the first several years of life, a child’s brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span, and causing learning disabilities. Less frequent, high dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, and blindness.
- In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss, and numbness of the fingers and toes. A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to mercury may also lead to heart disease. Source
How to decrease your exposure to mercury
- Limit intake of fish. Check the Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish before purchasing fish in a grocery store or restaurant.
- Read vaccine inserts prior to getting a vaccination. This is important for yourself or your child. Although mercury (thimerosal) was removed from many childhood vaccines after both the CDC and FDA recommended its removal in 1999, some types of influenza vaccines still contain mercury. If you choose to get an influenza vaccine, choose a thimerosal-free version.
Click here for a list of vaccine inserts.
- Safely dispose of mercury containing products. These include batteries, thermometers, and light bulbs. Most towns or counties have resources for hazardous waste product disposal. Contact your local municipality for more information.One of the most common sources of mercury exposure results from broken fluorescent light bulbs (CFL). Visit the EPA’s website for safety instructions on how to clean up while limiting your exposure. Consider green alternatives to CFL light bulbs for your home.
- Read package ingredients on new products. Food labels are not the only ones to read to stay healthy. Reading all package labels can be handy in determining the safety of any product.
- “Silver fillings” called amalgams contain about 50% mercury. According to the EPA, “silver fillings” called amalgams, contain about 50% mercury with the other half made up of silver, tin, copper, zinc and other metals. The World Health Organization states that “Dental fillings made with mercury amalgam can be a source of human exposure to elemental mercury vapours for many populations. Amalgam surfaces release mercury vapor into the mouth and lung, depending upon the number of amalgam fillings and other factors.”Source
These amalgam fillings are used to fill teeth affected by cavities. Even though amalgams are traditionally cheaper, it is important to consider safer alternatives with your dentist. If you already have these fillings, know that there are dentists that specialize in removing them without risking further exposure.
You’ve heard about Lead, but what about mercury and aluminum exposure?