Elemental mercury, also known as quicksilver, is recognized as that silvery, metallic goo found in old thermometers. It has been used in a variety of industrial processes for many years so the health effects of exposure are well known. Remember the zany Mad Hatter character from the Lewis Carroll novel and Disney classic Alice in Wonderland? Although clearly psychotic and frenetic in nature, this charming character was “mad as a hatter” due to the neurological and psychological effects of mercury vapor inhalation common in hat makers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who were exposed during the felting process.
Elemental mercury is a highly volatile metal, which means it evaporates quickly into the surrounding air. If a mercury thermometer breaks allowing the mercury to leak, or if mercury is brought home from school science projects or work, it can contaminate the air in the home when it evaporates. Severe cases of mercury poisoning have resulted when children inhaled mercury vapor while they were playing with and handling the “liquid silver.”
Inhaling high levels of mercury vapor can cause difficulty breathing and even death. Headache, weakness, tremors, emotional changes like mood swings or irritability, decreased cognitive function, changes in sensation, and kidney problems may be seen after short-term or long-term exposures. In small children and infants, high exposures may result in acrodynia or Pink disease which causes rash on the palms and soles followed by skin peeling, fever, and sweating.
What can you do?
Mercury should not be in the home or your child’s school. Mercury thermometers and any other instruments or containers with mercury need to be disposed of properly. Do not pour mercury down the sink or in the trash. Do not vacuum it. Click here to find out where to recycle sources of mercury in your home. If a thermometer breaks, call your local health department or fire department for advice. Click here for instructions on handling a minor mercury spill in the home.
Mercury is slowly being phased out of health care. Medical providers should work to replace all mercury-containing blood pressure devices and other instruments in their practices. Health Care Without Harm offers information on how to promote mercury-free hospitals and clinics: http://www.noharm.org/us_canada/.
Acknowledgment to Terry Grant, UIC 4th year medical student for his work on this article.