Mercury and Your Health

By Debra Kirchhof-Glazier

Member, Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association

Mercury is widespread in our society due to properties that make it useful in a wide variety of applications.  For example, it is used in thermometers because it is a liquid metal with a high rate of thermal expansion that is constant over a broad temperature range.  Mercury mixes well with gold, silver, zinc, and tin to make amalgams that are used in dental fillings.  It is also used in some types of vaccines to prevent bacterial growth.  In addition, mercury’s ability to conduct electricity makes it the metal of choice in the energy-smart compact fluorescent bulbs.

Mercury’s benefits come with a cost, however.  When mercury is poured down drains or when mercury-containing products are broken and thrown into our environment, the mercury gets into our air, water, soil, and the food chain.  Breathing the fumes, touching spilled mercury, or eating mercury-contaminated fish can cause health problems from acute or chronic exposure.

Acute exposure involves contact with a significant dose of mercury in a short period of time.  This can occur by breathing in a burst of mercury vapor released into the air or by touching liquid mercury.  The symptoms include coughing, difficulty breathing, and upset stomach. The respiratory symptoms can develop into pneumonia and lead to death.   Swallowing mercury causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and kidney damage.

Even low doses over an extended period of time can be problematic.  Chronic exposure can lead to inflammation and soreness of the gums, itching and rashes on the skin, pain in the hands and feet, discoloring of the lens of the eye, sperm damage, miscarriage, birth defects, and damage to the nervous system.  The effects on the nervous system were commonly seen in the “mad hatter syndrome” in hatters in the 1800s, who used mercury to preserve the felt used in hat making.  These symptoms include mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, memory loss, tremors in the hands, tongue, and eyelids, difficulty balancing, and inability to concentrate.  Unborn and young children are especially sensitive to mercury since their brains and nervous systems are actively developing.  Infants born to mothers exposed to mercury often show developmental delays, altered reflexes and muscle tone, and lower intelligence. There is currently a great deal of controversy about whether or not thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound used in childhood vaccines until about 2002, has triggered the epidemic of autism.

We cannot escape toxins in our environment, but we can take steps to minimize our exposure.  The first step is to avoid sources of contamination.  Contaminated fish is a common source.  Children and women who are pregnant or nursing should limit the amount of tuna they eat to one 6 oz. can a week and avoid entirely swordfish, king mackerel, shark and tilefish, also known as golden bass or golden snapper.  In addition, the next time you need to have a cavity filled, ask your dentist about an alternative to mercury amalgam.  Some dentists recommend removing and replacing old amalgam fillings, although this is very costly and requires a highly qualified professional. Use alternatives to mercury-containing products whenever possible, such as digital thermometers rather than the mercury-containing kind.  To make a difference on a large scale, you can urge legislators and EPA administrators to require companies to comply with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts when violations become public.

The second step involves proper care and disposal of mercury-containing products.  The Environmental Protection Agency has an extensive list of these products and how to handle them at   One of the most common mercury-containing items is the fluorescent light bulb, including the compact energy-smart bulbs, which are beneficial to the environment as long as they remain intact.  It is essential that consumers know that these contain mercury and should NOT be put in the garbage can.  A recent article in the Daily News on this topic mentioned that it is difficult to find a place to recycle these bulbs.  Fortunately, residents of Huntingdon County can take used bulbs to the County Recycling Center at 205 Penn Street or to the Household Hazardous Waste Collection in October.  Contact Lou Ann Shontz for details at 643-8192.  If you break one of these bulbs, see the steps below to limit the contamination.  Similar precautions should be taken if liquid mercury is released from a broken thermometer.  NEVER pour mercury down a drain.

  • Before clean-up shut off forced air heating or air conditioning systems, open a window, and leave the room for at least 15 minutes.
  • Use plastic gloves and scoop up glass pieces and powder with stiff paper or cardboard.

Transfer to a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.  DO NOT use a vacuum or broom to clean up hard surfaces, as these methods will distribute the mercury further

  • Use duct tape to pick up remaining fragments and powder.
  • Wipe the area with damp paper towels or wet wipes and place in the jar or plastic bag.
  • For carpets, remove all visible material and then vacuum. Remove the vacuum bag or wipe the canister with damp paper towels and place debris in the plastic bag
  • Clothing and materials that come in contact with the glass or powder should be thrown away in the plastic bag.
  • Wash contaminated shoes with damp paper towels or wet wipes and place them in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  • Store all debris until the next Household Hazardous Waste Collection
  • The next time you vacuum the carpet, shut off forced air heating or air conditioning, open a window, and keep it open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming.

Mercury is a toxin that can cause serious problems.  Knowledge and action can minimize the problems and ensure a healthier future for us and our children.

The Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association makes no medical claims or recommendations.  Check with your doctor about your specific health care needs.  For more information on the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association contact Chrystal Spayd, president, at 814-6 43-0588 or