Health Effects & Occupational Exposure to Mercury

Health Effects & Occupational Exposure to Mercury

Mercury is a naturally-occurring chemical element found in rock in the earth’s crust, including in deposits of coal. Its compounds exist in three general forms:

  1. Elemental (or metallic).
  2. Inorganic: Mercury can combine with other elements (mainly chlorine, sulfur, and oxygen) to form inorganic mercury compounds.
  3. Organic: Mercury may combine with carbon or carbon-containing substances to make organic mercury compounds. These organic compounds are further divided between alkyl (carbon-chain) and aryl (aromatic ring) groups.

Mercury is used in many instruments and products in the healthcare setting because of its uniform response to temperature and pressure changes.

  • Sphygmomanometers (blood pressure monitors), laboratory and patient care thermometers, and gastrointestinal devices use mercury to function.
  • Mercury compounds also are used in preservatives, fixatives, and reagents. Mercury from medical applications can enter the environment through sewers, spills, and land disposal of trash.

Workers in medical, dental, or other health services who work with equipment that contains mercury are at risk of being exposed to the toxic metal.

Thermometers in the healthcare setting use mercury to function.
Thermometers in the healthcare setting use mercury to function.

Occupational Exposure to Mercury

The most common potential mode of occupational exposure to mercury is via inhalation of metallic liquid mercury vapors. Since mercury vapor is odorless and colorless, people can breathe mercury vapor unknowingly. For liquid metallic mercury, inhalation is the route of exposure that poses the most significant health risk.

Mercury is a neurotoxin. How someone’s health may be affected by exposure to mercury depends on several factors which include:

  • form of mercury (for example, methylmercury or elemental metallic mercury)
  • amount of mercury in the exposure
  • age of the person exposed (unborn infants are the most vulnerable)
  • how long the exposure lasts
  • route of exposure (breathing, eating, and skin contact)
  • the 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.

How someone's health may be affected by exposure to mercury depends on several factors.
How someone’s health may be affected by exposure to mercury depends on several factors.

Health Effects Of Mercury

Mercury is highly toxic, primarily when metabolized into methyl mercury. It may be fatal if inhaled and harmful if absorbed through the skin. Mercury and most of its compounds are extremely toxic and you should always handle it with care. In cases of spills involving mercury, such as from thermometers or sphygmomanometers, use specific cleaning procedures to avoid exposure to mercury.

Acute Exposure

Acute exposure (short-term effects) to mercury may result in many health effects, including:

  • chills
  • nausea
  • general malaise
  • tightness in the chest
  • chest pains
  • dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • cough
  • stomatitis (inflammation or sore inside the mouth)
  • gingivitis
  • salivation
  • diarrhea

Chronic Exposure

Chronic exposure (long-term effects) to mercury may result in the following:

  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • anorexia
  • weight loss
  • disturbance of gastrointestinal function

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