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What are the sources of exposure to elemental and inorganic mercury and what are their health effects?

Elemental or metallic mercury is the liquid metal used in products such as:

  • Fever thermometers
  • Button cell batteries (standard household batteries do not contain mercury)
  • CFLs and other fluorescent light bulbs
  • Thermostats
  • Some folk remedies and religious practices

Note that in household products, where elemental mercury generally is contained in glass or metal, it does not pose a risk unless the product is damaged or broken and mercury vapors are released. Many of these mercury-containing products, such as fever thermometers and household thermostats, are being slowly phased out of use and replaced by non-mercury versions. 

At room temperature, uncontained mercury can evaporate and become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor. At higher temperatures, these concentrations increase. The longer people breathe the contaminated air, the greater the risk to their health. At very high exposures, inhaled elemental mercury vapors can produce severe lung, gastrointestinal, and nervous system damage.

Inorganic mercury compounds take the form of mercury salts. They are generally white powders or crystals, with the exception of mercuric sulfide (cinnabar) which is red. Inorganic compounds, and organic compounds, such as phenylmercury acetate and ethylmercury, have been commonly used as fungicides, antiseptics or disinfectants. They also have been used in a variety of products. Most of these uses have been discontinued, but small amounts of these compounds can still be found as preservatives in some medicines. In addition, mercury is still used in skin lighteners and anti-aging products for the skin. These products are manufactured abroad and are sold illegally in the United States.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains:

Misuse or overuse of mercury-containing products can result in excessive exposure to inorganic and organic mercury compounds. Exposure to mercury compounds is primarily through ingestion, but can occur through other pathways. Organic mercury compounds are more readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and skin than are inorganic compounds. High exposures to mercury compounds can damage the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys.

More information:

Information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):

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Topic Information
  • Topic #: 23002-21444
  • Date Created: 1/19/2005
  • Last Modified Since: 8/26/2014
  • Viewed: 2975

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