Mercury is uniquely both a heavy metal and a liquid at room temperature. Only three other elements are liquids at room temperature. Its atomic number is 80. Other metals near it on the Periodic Chart include silver, gold, cadmium, and lead. Gold is the only one of these that is more dense. Being both a metal and liquid had made it both useful and harmful. The usefulness has been known for centuries. The harm we are only beginning to learn.
Mercury has been around for a long time. It was known in ancient China and India and was found in Egyptian tombs built 3500 years ago. Mercury metal is extracted from cinnabar, or mercury sulfide. Cinnabar is mined mostly in Texas, California, Spain and Italy.
The metal has been used for years in thermometers, sphygmomanometers, and barometers because it responds to temperature and pressure changes uniformly and because 13 times less mercury is needed in the measuring column than if it contained water. The down side of this is that mercury, mercury vapor, and all soluble salts of mercury are extreme poisons.
In spire of its poisonous nature, mercury has been used in a wide variety of ways. Street lights with a blue tinge are generally mercury vapor lights. Vermillion, which is really mercury sulfide, is used as a ship paint to reduce the problem of barnacles. Mercury has also been used in fluorescent lights. If they are broken indoors, the powder coming out contains enough poisonous mercury vapor to be a health risk.
Mercury is also used in dental amalgams and some cosmetics though some claim no health risk has ever been proven. When the author growing up, it was common to paint mercurochrome on a wound with a glass rod to keep the wound from being infected. Today it is outlawed.
Research has heightened awareness of the far reaching negative effects of heavy metals on health. The fact is, mercury, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals are not needed by the body. Indeed, their presence is nearly always negative. We ingest them in a variety of ways. The abundant use of mercury in the past has now poisoned water, land, and seas. Today mercury poisoning in tuna and swordfish is a serious health risk and must be monitored continually.
A few products that use mercury are listed here, each one posing a threat to cause mercury poisoning: air conditioner filters, battery manufacturing, burning newspapers and building materials, cosmetics, fabric softeners, fungicides, industrial waste, lumber, paints, photoengraving, psoriasis ointment, sewage disposal, suppositories, and wood preservatives.
These are a few of the effects of mercury poisoning on the body: allergy, anxiety, cataracts, depression, dizziness, emotional disturbances, fatigue, kidney damage, pain in limbs, suicidal tendencies, and others. These heavy metals can actually damage DNA increasing the risk of cancer.
Symptoms like those above often include sensory impairment such as vision, hearing, or speech problems, lack of coordination, and disturbed sensation. The type of symptom and the degree of the problem will depend on the individual, the metal causing the poisoning, and the duration of the exposure.
The sheer number of products that have used mercury in the past means it is in most every landfill in the country. From there, mercury can leach into the soil and end up in produce or in the water system. Most city water systems will remove it but if you use well water in cooking or drinking, you might be in danger of mercury poisoning.
This article is not designed to frighten you but to alert you to possible danger of mercury poisoning. We can’t do anything about landfill leaching into our present water sources. Neither can we do anything about decreasing the number of products using mercury in some form. But we can do whatever possible to make our drinking water safe.
If you have any doubts about your water, it is best to filter it before drinking or cooking with it. An activated charcoal filter for example promises to remove up to 95% of any mercury or other heavy metals in the water. It does this through its ability to adsorb the toxins. The investment in a good water filter will not only be worth the money, but will give the added benefit of bringing you peace of mind.