Effects of Mercury

Mercury is an element which is the only metal that is a liquid at standard atmospheric pressure and temperature. This has earned it the nickname quicksilver, owing to the way the liquid mercury flows quickly across surfaces it has been poured onto. In fact, it moves at the slightest touch.

Most of the world’s mercury is obtained through mining cinnabar, which is a mineral ore similar in appearance to quartz. The cinnabar is roasted in a furnace, allowing the mercury in the ore to separate from it and evaporate. The mercury is captured in a condensing column and forms back into a liquid which is then stored in iron flasks as iron does not form an amalgam with the mercury unlike most other metals.

Mercury is mainly used for industrial processes, such as its use as a cathode in electrolytic reactions, and in electronics. Fluorescent lamps make extensive use of mercury to create ultraviolet light which causes phosphor to fluoresce and thus creates light. This is one of the most common uses of mercury that people make use of in day to day life.

Whilst mercury is a fascinating and useful element, it is also highly toxic to humans and other animals. This toxicity is mainly a concern for newborns and developing fetuses, as mercury can lead to neurological deficits and hinder development. Age is a factor in the toxicity of mercury, with adults being far less susceptible to nervous system damage than children or babies.

The toxicity of mercury can affect people through various routes of absorption, with skin absorption, inhalation, and oral ingestion being possible. The type of mercury is also important, with methylmercury being the most common compound in the environment, in seafood and other food. Inorganic compounds of mercury are less readily absorbed than their organic counterparts, but still dangerous for the same reasons.

Acute mercury poisoning can lead to stomach and abdominal pain, vomiting, kidney failure and difficulty moving, and may produce other less severe symptoms. Chronic mercury poisoning causes a disorder known as mad hatter’s disease, based on mercury’s historic use in the hatter industry and subsequent poisonings. The mad hatter of Lewis Carol’s famous book Alice in Wonderland is thought to be based off the effects of chronic mercury exposure.

Chronic exposure to mercury is a debilitating condition, and is characterised by mood instability,  tremors and tingling sensations of the limbs, impairment to hearing, vision, reflexes, kidney damage, immune system disorder, and impaired nerve conduction. People poisoned by mercury chronically are also shown to have greatly reduced fertility and suffer miscarriages and neurological problems in babies.

Because of these dangers, it is wise to avoid coming in contact with too much mercury. Whilst the use of fluorescent lighting and eating the occasional fish isn’t likely to cause any health problems, young children and babies are extremely susceptible and possibility of contact with mercury should be avoided to prevent neurological problems in the future.