In this article I will be analyzing the very important topic of mercury poisoning. It is an issue of massive importance for public health because first of all it has been correlated with many devastating and life threatening diseases/conditions and second most cases of this poisoning go undetected as few doctors are trained to recognize the symptoms and request the relevant tests.
Mercury is an element found naturally in our environment. It is found in the earth’s crust in abundance. Humans cannot process mercury at all, create it or destroy it. There are 3 forms of mercury: elemental or metallic mercury (known as quicksilver), inorganic mercury compounds and organic mercury compounds. Elemental mercury and its compounds are toxic and upon exposure to excessive levels the brain and kidneys can be permanently damaged or fatally injured. Elemental mercury can also be absorbed through the skin and cause allergic reactions. Ingestion of inorganic mercury compounds can have severe impact in the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. Organic mercury compounds are considered the most toxic forms of this element. Exposures to even very small amounts of them can result in devastating neurological damage and death. People in general respond quite differently in mercury poisoning and this is related with several factors such as the overall quantity of the element accumulated, how it entered the body (different forms), the duration of exposure as well as the detoxification ability of the body (which in turn depends on several genetic factors but mainly on proper diet). When coal or other fossil fuels are being burned, mercury pollution is released in the air. Mercury particles in the air eventually settle into waterways or onto land where it can be washed into water. Once deposited, certain bacteria metabolize it and transform it into methyl mercury, a highly toxic form that accumulates in fish, shellfish and finally in animals that eat fish. Fish and shellfish are the main sources of methyl mercury exposure to humans.
Mercury poisoning can cause a wide variety of symptoms because this type of poisoning causes systemic problems. This means that it doesn’t just affect one part, rather than every system of the body; it literally seeps every tissue and every organ in the body. For a start, it crosses the blood-brain barrier (not many substances can do that) and affects the nervous system. From there, a downward spiral begins with the manifestation of many diverse symptoms like headaches, vertigo, tiredness, anxiety, restlessness, lack of concentration/attention, slow reflexes or you can even develop numbness and tingling. Also mercury weakens the immune system so it is a matter of time before more diseases occur; many scientists associate mercury poisoning with autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The list of symptoms does not stop here I’m afraid. Mercury affects the cardiovascular and respiratory system a lot. Related symptoms may include weak pulse, blood pressure changes, chest pain, asthma, feeling of pressure in the chest area and difficulty in breathing. Especially in children and babies, mercury poisoning has been associated with the development of autism, ADD and other infants’ unexplained behavioral syndromes (all of neurological nature).
Exposure to mercury is quite easy these days. First of all mercury coming from environmental pollution, accumulates in fish muscle tissues, thus reaching a concentration about a million times more than the levels found in the water itself. Some fish seem to be more prone to accumulating mercury in their tissues than others and this depends heavily on whether they are fresh water or sea species, the size of the fish itself, how long they live (the longer the greater the exposure) as well as what they eat. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the fish, the larger the amount of mercury found in the tissues. Therefore fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish have been found to be number 1 in mercury concentrations. Also albacore tuna (canned or steaks), lobster and sea bass were found to have a lot more mercury than the amount allowed for humans.
Mercury is used as 50% of the contents of amalgam dental fillings. This is a serious source of mercury poisoning indeed as it keeps on “feeding” the body on a consistent basis with small amounts of this poison for years. Many people have found miraculous relief from many debilitating conditions after they removed their fillings and substituted them with alternative, non – mercury types. Also, cosmetics can be another source of poisoning. In the States a company produceda beauty cream with an ingredient called “calomel” in the formula. “Calomel” is mercurous chloride (HgCl2). This specific product had mercury levels approximately 10%. Also in Germany there were reports of serious mercury poisoning cases due to hair bleaching products. Finally mercury spills (from broken thermometers, laboratories etc) can be a very serious source of contamination because metallic mercury evaporates when exposed to air. The air in a room can reach critical mercury concentrations just by the mercury of one thermometer.