Breathing in air that is contaminated with mercury can be a health hazard. Mercury is a natural element found in rocks and soil, and it can get into the air from burning coal and other industrial activities. Long-term exposure to mercury can cause heart, brain, kidney and skin problems. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of mercury exposure and improve your health.
Understanding the Types of Mercury
Mercury is released into the environment in three main forms: elemental (or metallic) mercury, inorganic mercury compounds and organic mercury compounds.
Elemental mercury is a silver/gray liquid that has a low vapor pressure. It is used in products like thermometers, batteries, switches and fluorescent light bulbs, and when it is broken or heated, it can be released into the air as a vapor.
Inorganic mercury compounds are compounds that are created when mercury combines with another element, like chlorine or sulfur. These compounds can be hazardous if you breathe in their vapors, which can occur from some industrial processes.
Organic mercury compounds are compounds that are created when mercury combines with carbon. An example of an organic mercury compound is methylmercury, which is found in some types of fish and shellfish.
Steps to Reduce Your Risk Of Exposure
Avoid using products that contain mercury. Try to find mercury-free alternatives if possible. If you have to use mercury-containing products, make sure to handle them properly.
Learn what to do in the event of a mercury spill. If you suspect that you have been exposed to mercury, seek immediate medical attention.
Reduce your consumption of fish. Fish and shellfish can contain mercury, and the FDA recommends that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children limit the type and amount of fish that they consume to reduce their risk of exposure.
Reduce your use of coal. Burning coal releases mercury into the air, so reducing your use of coal can help reduce your risk of mercury exposure.
The Bottom Line
Exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems, but by understanding the types of mercury, avoiding products that contain mercury, knowing what to do in the event of a spill, reducing your consumption of fish, and reducing your use of coal, you can help reduce your risk of exposure and improve your health.