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Is any exposure to mercury harmful to people?

Mercury can affect the nervous system. Because fetuses, infants, and children are still developing, they are particularly sensitive to the effects of methylmercury on the nervous system. Over time, the body can rid itself of some mercury. Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take months to a year for the levels to drop significantly.  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. Almost all people have at least trace amounts of mercury in their tissues, reflecting mercury’s widespread presence in the environment. People may be exposed to mercury in any of its forms under different situations. The factors that determine how severe the health effects are from mercury exposure include: 

  • The chemical form of mercury - i.e. elemental (metallic), inorganic compounds, or organic 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
  • Other chemical exposures
  • The specific characteristics of the person - i.e. age, health

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

Further information:

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Topic Information
  • Topic #: 23002-18838
  • Date Created: 1/19/2005
  • Last Modified Since: 1/22/2014
  • Viewed: 1734

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