Mercury poisoning is health condition which is becoming increasingly common today. It is caused by exposure to the heavy metal mercury through a number of sources. The metal is toxic and can have dangerous effects on the health.
A number of studies have shown that a high and perpetual exposure to mercury can lead to changes in the central nervous system which causes headaches, irritability, hearing, and cognitive loss, tremors, fatigue, hallucinations, behavioral changes or even death.
In addition, researchers have also observed that mercury’s effect on the cardiovascular system. Mercury exposure can also result in high blood pressure in both animals and humans.
In an ideal world, no one would have any amount of mercury present in their bodies. However, almost all people have traces of mercury present in their bodies due to factors such as environmental exposures, diets, and fillings.
Typically, a small amount of mercury in the body is removed through feces and urine and it not that problematic but high levels of the metal due to continued exposure can cause signs of mercury poisoning with the passage of time.
Fortunately, low-levels of mercury do not cause any issues but it is also very easy to get exposed to the metal repeatedly. For example, if a person consumes a lot of fish loaded with mercury, it may take more than a year for the body to remove the mercury from the body.
This is because a majority of the seafood contains methylmercury and the body can absorb up to 90 percent of that mercury into the bloodstream. Later, it travels to different parts of the body and penetrates into the cells of organs and tissues.
Mercury can stay in the cells of the tissues and organs for many weeks or even months and cause complications which people may not even realize are signs of mercury poisoning.
It is not really possible to avoid mercury completely and have no traces of it in the body but preventive measures can be taken to reduce mercury exposure.
For instances, the Environmental Protection Agency has stated that fish and seafood are some of the biggest sources of mercury. Limiting the amount of mercury-loaded fish can effectively reduce the chances of mercury poisoning.
How Does Mercury Poisoning Occur?
Mercury is one of the heavy metals that are found in the Earth’s crust. Mercury can be released into the environment either by natural phenomena such as volcanic eruption or human activities like gold mining or coal burning.
The metal is usually found in three forms – organic, inorganic, and elemental. Mercury is present in inorganic salts and in compounds in nature. It is rarely found in liquid form naturally.
Elemental or metallic mercury is also seen in barometers, thermometers, and fluorescent light bulbs. Mercury thermometers have recently been removed from many hospitals and other medical centers due to studies showing its poisonous effects.
Mercury poisoning is a result of exposure to the water-soluble forms of heavy metal such as methylmercury, ingesting any form of mercury, and by inhaling mercury metals.
Ideally, a normal mercury level in the blood is between zero to nine nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). The people who are likely to have more than the normal amount are the ones who are regularly exposed to the metal.
People who have regular exposure to mercury such as dentists can have up to 15 nanograms per milliliter of the metal in their blood.
In addition, studies have shown that people who get amalgam fillings might also be at a higher risk of having a higher than usual amount of mercury in their blood. A study conducted by the University of Georgia in 2016 highlighted the role of these fillings in mercury poisoning.
The researchers included in the study also stated the number of the mercury fillings that can cause an increase of the metal in the bloodstream.
According to the results of the study, the people with more than eight mercury fillings had around 150 percent more mercury in their blood compared to people who had a lesser amount of fillings. An average person in the US has three dental fillings while 25 percent have eleven or more.
It may be okay to get one or two dental fillings but having more than eight dental fillings may cause issues. People who have a lot of fillings and are exposed to mercury from other sources such as seafood or the environment are at the highest risk of mercury poisoning.
Elemental mercury is also found in fluorescent light bulbs, thermometers, electrical switches in addition to dental fillings.
What Are The Symptoms Of Mercury Poisoning?
The initial signs of mercury can be easily confused with other, everyday health conditions which is why people are not able to figure out they are experiencing mercury poisoning.
The most common symptoms of exposure to elemental mercury are:
- A bad Cough
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Bleeding and swollen gums
- Difficulty in breathing
Exposure to elemental mercury can have serious side effects on the body depending on how much of it is inhaled. Effects include long-term brain damage, permanent lung damage, and even death.
Organic mercury or methylmercury is mostly found in or in the fumes of burning coal. Symptoms of exposure to this type of mercury include:
- Inability to walk straight
- Uncontrollable shaking (or tremor)
- Pain and numbness in particular areas of the body
- Difficulty in remembering and memory problems
- Blind and double vision
- Long-term exposure may even cause seizures (leading to death)
What Are The Most Common Causes Of Mercury Poisoning?
In consonance with the research published in Environmental Health in 2007, the biggest sources of exposure to mercury are methylmercury from fish or seafood, mercury vapor from dental amalgam fillings, and inorganic mercury from food.
In the United States, the consumption of fish is primarily linked with exposure to the heavy metal. Fish that are observed to be high in mercury include swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, bigeye tuna, and shark with tilefish having the highest concentration.
The cooking method of fish does not impact the mercury levels in the fish. Cooking merely makes a difference and mercury levels are same in both cooked and raw versions of the fish.
The second biggest source of mercury exposure is amalgam fillings. Amalgam fillings are said to contain tin, silver, alloy powered metals, copper, and liquid mercury which forms around fifty percent of the filling by weight.
According to Mayo Clinic Medical Laboratories, mercury is released from amalgam fillings on a daily basis. Around two to twenty micrograms of mercury are released from the dental fillings solely by chewing.
This also means that chewing gum once in a while can release a lot of mercury. In addition, the flora present in the mouth can convert the released mercury into methylmercury and oxidized mercury, both of which are known to penetrate into the tissues of the body.
RELATED: Is Chewing Gum Bad For You?
Researchers have stated that the mercury released by a few amalgam fillings is not that dangerous. It mostly depends on the daily exposure along with the levels of mercury already present in the body.
The third source of mercury poisoning is seen to be herbal medicines which have been manufactured outside the United States. Since these medications are not controlled by the Food and Drug Administration, there are not any set purity standards for them.
This is why it is important to choose herbal medicines along with the various supplements very carefully. Try consulting with a health professional before trying any herbal medicines to decrease the risk of mercury poisoning.