Do not let kids play with mercury!

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:

Acknowledgment to Terry Grant, UIC 4th year medical student for his work on this article.

Why your doctor should be asking you about fish

When you go to the doctor you expect to hear about your blood pressure, your weight, or your risk of STDs or heart attack. But your doctor should also be asking you how much fish you eat. FISH? Why fish? Well, from a health standpoint, this is a tricky one. Fish are a great source of protein. They are low in fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve cardiac health and are essential for the developing brains of young children and the fetus in utero. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week, but most of us are not consuming enough to reap the benefits from those omega-3s.

Unfortunately, this healthy food source is often contaminated. When mercury is released into the atmosphere from coal-burning power plants, waste incinerators, and the rare volcano, it travels for miles and deposits in waterways where it is transformed into methyl mercury. This type of mercury accumulates in fish and as larger fish eat smaller fish, it concentrates up the food chain. When humans eat large fish who have fed off of smaller fish and have lived long lives, we may ingest unsafe levels of mercury. While there are no reports of mercury toxicity in healthy adults from eating commercial fish in moderation, adverse health effects from fish consumption among pregnant and breastfeeding women, young children, and populations that eat a lot of fish are a real concern.

Studies among island populations who eat a lot of seafood have shown lower scores on neurological testing among children who were exposed to mercury in utero. It has been estimated that 1,566 cases of mental retardation in the US are due to fetal mercury exposure from mothers’ fish intake. In adults, higher mercury levels have been associated with hypertension and cerebrovascular disease.

People who catch fish recreationally are at risk for health effects from mercury if they eat large amounts of their catch. Also, certain ethnic groups are at risk because they are accustomed to eating fish frequently.

What can you do?

Eat fish but choose wisely! Eating fish is important for your health. If you are a healthy adult, eat two meals per week of a variety of fish. If you are pregnant, breast feeding, or are planning a pregnancy soon, DO NOT EAT shark, swordfish, tilefish, or king mackerel. (Follow these same restrictions for  young children.) You may eat two meals per week of a variety of fish. If you eat fish caught locally, eat only ONE meal per week or check the local fish advisory for more details.


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