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[AUG. 28, 2004]  SPRINGFIELD -- Health problems caused by mercury depend on how much has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to the mercury. People are at risk when they consume mercury-contaminated fish and when they are exposed to spilled mercury.

Elemental (metallic) mercury and its compounds are toxic, and exposure to excessive levels can permanently damage or fatally injure the brain and kidneys. Elemental mercury can also be absorbed through the skin and cause allergic reactions. Ingestion of inorganic mercury compounds can cause severe renal and gastrointestinal toxicity. Organic compounds of mercury, such as methylmercury, are considered the most toxic forms of the element. Exposures to very small amounts of these compounds can result in devastating neurological damage and death.

For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development. Even low levels of mercury exposure, such as result from mother's consumption methylmercury in dietary sources, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system. Effects on memory, attention, language and other skills have been found in children exposed to moderate levels in the womb.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning:

  • Impairment of the peripheral vision
  • Disturbances in sensations -- "pins and needles" feelings, numbness -- usually in the hands feet and sometimes around the mouth
  • Lack of coordination of movements, such as writing
  • Impairment of speech, hearing, walking
  • Muscle weakness
  • Skin rashes
  • Mood swing
  • Memory loss
  • Mental disturbance

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All mercury spills, regardless of quantity, should be treated seriously. Metallic mercury slowly evaporates when exposed to the air. The air in a room can reach contamination levels just from the mercury in a broken thermometer. Mercury in school labs should be handled with care and stored safely and securely.

Mercury pollution is released into the air from the burning of fossil fuels. It falls down directly onto waterways or is deposited on land, where it can be washed into the water. Bacteria in the water cause chemical changes that transform mercury into methylmercury, a highly toxic form.

Methylmercury accumulates in fish, with larger fish generally accumulating higher levels of methylmercury. If you are pregnant or could become pregnant, are nursing a baby, or if you are feeding a young child, you should limit consumption of freshwater fish caught by family and friends to one meal per week. For adults one meal is 6 ounces of cooked fish or 8 ounces uncooked fish; for a young child one meal is 2 ounces cooked fish or 3 ounces uncooked fish. Many states collect data on mercury levels in fish from local waters and issue fish consumption advisories.

For more information on freshwater fish consumption advisories across the country, go to http://map1.epa.gov/.

[U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]

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