Mercury is toxic
Mercury is a naturally occurring element that can be toxic to humans and wildlife. When products containing mercury are broken, thrown in the trash, outdoors or down drains, the mercury can pollute our environment and contaminate many kinds of fish. You and your family can be exposed to mercury by breathing its fumes, eating contaminated fish or touching spilled mercury.
Learn what items in your home contain mercury.
Mercury is found in many common products such as thermometers, thermostats, fluorescent bulbs and switches. The button batteries found in your calculators, watches and hearing aids may contain mercury. It is also found in cylindrical batteries made before 1990. Even some topical disinfectants, contact lens solutions and detergents contain mercury.
How widespread is the problem?
All the New England states and Eastern Canadian Provinces have lakes and ponds with fish that have elevated levels of mercury. In Massachusetts, almost half of the lakes and ponds tested have one or more types of fish with unsafe levels of mercury. Over 40 states have issued fish consumption advisories due to mercury.
Where does the mercury come from?
Mercury is a natural element and can be found at low levels almost everywhere. However, human activities such as coal burning and trash disposal have significantly increased mercury levels in the environment. Many common products contain mercury and can pollute the environment when they are incinerated, landfilled, broken or disposed of down drains.
Why is mercury in fish?
In lakes, ponds and the ocean, mercury can be transformed by natural processes into a more toxic form called methylmercury. Methylmercury is absorbed by small organisims which are then eaten by fish. The mercury becomes concentrated in the fish. In, fact, the level of methylmercury in fish can be up to a million times higher than in the water the fish lives in. Thus, the fish may be unsafe to eat even though the water is safe to swim in or drink.
Why is the problem so widespread?
Once released into the environment, mercury persists for long periods of time and does not degrade into harmless chemicals. Mercury can have local impact or be carried across whole continents by the wind. Even remote lakes and ponds may be polluted with mercury.
What is being done about mercury pollution?
The high mercury levels in fish from lakes and ponds across the region prompted the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers to adopt a regional mercury action plan in June 1998. This plan has spurred many aggressive actions to reduce mercury pollution in the region.
Mercury Spill Cleanup.
When mercury is spilled, it evaporates and gives off hazardous vapors that are invisible and odorless. If you spill mercury or break a product that contains mercury, it is important that it be cleaned up immediately.
Contain the spill.
Spilled mercury can spread quickly. Move furniture and other objects away form the spill and prevent the mercury from flowing into drains, cracks or crevices. Any remaining mercury will continue to emit dangerous vapors so it is important to contain every drop.
Never vacuum or sweep up the spilled mercury.
Vacuuming or sweeping up a mercury spill will spread the mercury throughout the house and contaminate your vacuum or broom.
Clean the spill.
Follow the cleanup procedure appropriate for the spill area.
On a hard surface, push the beads of mercury together with a stiff piece of paper or cardboard. Lift the beads with the cardboard and place into a plastic container. Pick up any remaining mercury with duct or packing tape or an eyedropper and place in the container along with the pieces of the broken item, the cardboard and gloves. Close the container and seal it with tape.
In a drain, remove the sink trap and pour the contents into a plastic container. Close the container and seal it with tape.
Dispose of mercury waste responsibly.
Label the containers used to collect the spilled material as mercury waste and store away from children. Never put the mercury waste in the trash! Many communities accept mercy waste as hazardous waste centers or collection events.
Mercury is poisonous to the nervous system, kidneys, liver and immune system.
There are several different types of mercury. Although some are more dangerous than others, all are toxic. Depending on the type and amount, exposures to mercury can damage the nervous system, brain, kidneys, liver and immune system. One form of mercury, methylmercury, is extremely poisonous and can damage the brain, even at low levels of exposure. People may be exposed to this type of mercury by eating some types of fish. Elemental mercury, the silvery liquid found in some thermometers and switches, is most dangerous when inhaled and must be handled with care.
Children are most sensitive to mercury toxicity.
The developing brains and nervous systems of children are very sensitive to mercury and may be irreversibly damaged by it. Children can be exposed to methylmercury by eating certain types of fish. Breaking mercury-containing products such as thermometers used in homes and schools can also result in exposure to mercury.
Women who are pregnant or who may soon become pregnant should be particularly careful about mercury. Children can be exposed to mercury in the womb if their mothers eat foods contaminated with this toxin. The National Academy of Science estimates that 60,000 children may be born each
year in the United States with neurological problems due to exposure to mercury in the womb. The effects caused by this mercury exposure may be permanent and could lead to poor school performance and health problems.