We all may have heard that mercury is hazardous, poisonous in fact, when it gets in contact with our skin. This is true and scientific evidence will explain why this is so. Mercury exists in different forms. It can be elemental or metallic, organic such as methlymercury that can expose people through diet, and inorganic that may expose someone through his or her occupation. These various forms differ in their toxicity level and in their effect on the body system affecting the digestive, nervous and immune systems.
Mercury can be found in the earth’s crust, occurring naturally from volcanic activity, weathering of rocks and sometimes as an outcome of human activity. The latter is usually the reason for the release of mercury especially in coal-fired power stations, industrial processes, burning of residential coal from heating, and also during mining activities that includes other metals.
Once released into the environment, mercury can transform into methylmercury through bacteria and goes through the bioaccumulation in fish and shellfish. Bioaccumulation is a process that takes place when an organism has higher concentrations of an element or a substance than the surroundings. Methylmercury has the ability to magnify such that when a large organism accumulates smaller organisms with mercury content, so mercury levels tend to become large.
How can one be exposed to mercury?
People can be exposed to this harmful element in any of its forms under any given circumstance. The main source of exposure in human beings is consumption of fish or shellfish containing methylmercury. Inhaling elemental mercury vapors especially in the industrial work setting is also one cause of main exposure to mercury.
In one way or another, we are all exposed to certain levels of mercury. Most of us are exposed to low mercury levels, often through long-term or chronic exposure either continuously or intermittently, while some are exposed to high levels of mercury that may even include acute or short-term contact, often less than a day. One example of short-term mercury contact is a worker who got into an industrial accident.
What factors affect one’s health in a mercury exposure?
If you are concerned how mercury can adversely affect your health condition, here is a list of the factors that determine if mercury exposure can affect your health and how severe can it get:
- Type of mercury concerned
- Dosage of mercury
- Age or developmental stage of the exposed individual (fetuses are more vulnerable)
- The length of contact or exposure
- The manner of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, or direct skin contact)
In general, there are two groups of individuals who are sensitive and directly impacted to the effects of mercury contact. First are the fetuses. They are the most susceptible. Exposure of methylmercury in the womb may be brought about by a mother’s consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish. Adversely, it has effects on the baby’s brain and nervous system. Mercury primarily impairs an individual’s neurological development. So, this affects one’s cognitive processes involving thinking, memory, language and attention. The motor and visual skills of children who were exposed to methylmercury as fetus may also be damaged.
The second group is those individuals who are regularly exposed to high levels of mercury such as workers in an industrial plant who have high tendencies of getting exposed due to industrial processes or those people whose main source of livelihood and survival is fishing.
How can mercury exposure after our health?
Exposure to mercury can be fatal depending on the severity, and you have to know how it can adversely weaken the body’s health and overall condition. Metallic or elemental mercury and methylmercury are harmful to the central and nervous system of the body.
If you happen to inhale mercury vapor, it can weaken the nervous and digestive system and the total immune system. It will also have direct harmful impact on the lungs and kidneys. If ingested, the inorganic salts present in mercury are harmful to the eyes, skin and gastrointestinal tract which may trigger toxicity in the kidney.
Any means of exposure to different mercury compounds, whether through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact can cause neurological and behavioral disorders. Watch out for symptoms like memory loss, tremors, insomnia, headaches, neuromuscular effects, and cognitive dysfunction.
Workers who are exposed to elemental mercury for a long time may be showing signs of toxicity in the brain or the central nervous system. They may also experience toxicity in the kidney such as kidney failure or increased protein in the urine.
Mercury has its uses in various aspects but it is a lot more hazardous when exposed. It is always better to be sufficiently and properly educated with the possible causes and effects of mercury exposure, especially that we can’t really tell if we have been exposed to it or not, unless if the evidence is clear.