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Is any exposure to mercury harmful to people?

Mercury can affect the human nervous system -- the system that coordinates your body’s voluntary and involuntary actions, and that transmits signals between different parts of your body.  Because the bodies of fetuses, infants, and children are still developing, their nervous systems are particularly sensitive to the effects of mercury.

Almost all people have at least trace amounts of mercury in their tissues, reflecting mercury’s widespread presence in the environment.  People are mainly exposed to methylmercury, an organic compound, when they eat fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury.

Whether an exposure to mercury will harm a person's health depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The chemical form of mercury:
    • o   methylmercury and other organic mercury compounds,
    • o   elemental mercury (also known as metallic mercury), and
    • o   mercury salts and other inorganic mercury compounds.
    • The dose - i.e. how much
    • The duration of exposure - i.e. how long
    • The route of exposure - i.e. eating, breathing, injecting, touching
    • Whether the person is exposed at the same time to other chemicals
    • Age and health of the person exposed.

The effects of mercury exposure can be very severe, subtle, or may not occur at all, depending on the factors above.

Anyone with concerns about mercury exposure can consult:

  • Their physician. Doctors may be able to identify exposure and health risks by measuring the amounts of mercury in blood, urine, breast milk, finger and toenails, and hair, and/or
  • Their poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Note that over time, the body can rid itself of some mercury; however, it may take months to a year for the levels to drop significantly. 

Further information:

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Topic Information
  • Topic #: 23002-18838
  • Date Created: 1/19/2005
  • Last Modified Since: 8/7/2014
  • Viewed: 2421

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