The Dangers of Mercury and How to Get Rid of it Safely

The professionals at the Central Ohio Poison Center love to give good news (“That poison you’re calling about – the dose your child got is too low to cause any problems”) and money-saving advice (“If you can flush your eyes out with water for ten minutes, you won’t have to go to the hospital”). We really don’t enjoy giving bad news or expensive advice, which is why mercury continues to be such a problem.

Humans have found ways to use quicksilver (liquid mercury) for thousands of years, but we’ve only known how dangerous it is for the past hundred years. Even today, many people don’t know about mercury’s dangers.

When people call our poison center about mercury, they’re often dealing with mercury from a broken thermometer or a compact fluorescent light bulb. In most cases there’s only a small amount of mercury in these, and with special precautions, the clean-up is safe, easy, and inexpensive.

Larger quantities of mercury can cause more trouble, and may need professional cleanup – including mercury from industrial thermometers, thermostat switches, and medical equipment such as blood pressure cuffs. The circumstances are important; a small spill on a hard, non-porous surface, recognized and cleaned immediately is very easy to take care of. A bigger spill onto a soft, porous surface can quickly become a big challenge. In some cases we’ve seen people who had a bottle of quicksilver stored in the home – probably undisturbed and maybe even forgotten for years.

The danger.

Is mercury really such a big deal? YES! Holding, playing with, and even swallowing mercury, although definitely not recommended, is relatively safe for most of us. The biggest danger is from chronic inhalation of mercury, over weeks to months; this happens  when bedrooms, vacuum cleaners, sink drains, furniture or carpets get contaminated with even tiny (too small to see) amounts of mercury. Symptoms of mercury poisoning can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Developmental delays
  • Fever
  • Back pain
  • Anorexia and weight loss
  • Muscle weakness, which can be severe
  • Night sweats
  • Irritability, agitation and tremors
  • Shyness or apathy
  • Pink or red skin, blushing, rashes
  • Fatigue and insomnia

In some cases the contamination can be obvious. In others mercury contamination may not be suspected. When a case of mercury poisoning is diagnosed and the home is checked, the exposures can be so small it’s hard to believe how  such a small amount of mercury caused so much illness.

New treatments.

The traditional treatment for mercury poisoning is to stop all exposures. In many cases, chelation therapy is also used. This involves giving a medication (the chelator) which goes into the body and grabs the metal (chelos is the Greek word for claw) then carries the metal out of the body, usually into the urine. Chelation therapy is good at lowering blood levels of mercury and other toxic metals, but it’s never been very good at reversing nerve damage or brain injury.

Recently scientists have learned that one of the most significant ways mercury affects the body is by interfering with selenium. In one recent case, we administered selenium after a round of chelation therapy didn’t seem to help. This patient, who had been declining in a different hospital for weeks (and was to be transferred to a facility for chronic nursing care) made dramatic improvements after starting selenium.

Got mercury?

Safely dispose of it – preferably to a mercury recycler (Ohio EPA has a list here: https://ebiz.epa.ohio.gov/Recyclers/jsp/search.jsp ).

Had a spill?

Call the poison center (1-800-222-1222) anywhere in USA to connect you to your regional center for quick assessment and advice. Whether the cleanup is big or small, it should be done quickly, and until it’s done, people and animals should stay out of the area.

Marcel J. Casavant, MD
Marcel J. Casavant, MD, is Division Chief of Toxicology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and a Clinical Professor in the College of Pharmacy. He also is Medical Director of the Central Ohio Poison Center and Director of the Central Ohio Lead Clinic. His clinical interests include the treatment of poisonings in adults and children, particularly heavy metals intoxication. He works extensively with local and state governments developing effective responses to chemical, biological and radiological terrorism, and is Principal Investigator of an HRSA-funded grant to develop Ohio’s three poison centers as a state resource for terrorism response.

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