Mercury is an element that is found all over the earth, in soil, rocks, and water. It is released into the environment from volcanic activity, weathering of rocks and as a result of human activity. Human activity is the main cause of mercury releases, particularly coal-fired power stations, residential coal burning for heating and cooking, industrial processes, waste incinerators and as a result of mining for mercury, gold and other metals. People may be exposed to mercury in any of its forms under different circumstances. The most dangerous form to human health and the environment is organic mercury, primarily in the form of methyl mercury. However, exposure mainly occurs through consumption of fish and shellfish contaminated with methylmercury and through worker inhalation of elemental mercury vapours during industrial processes. Cooking does not eliminate mercury.
Factors that determine whether health effects occur and their severity include:
- the type of mercury concerned
- the dose
- the age or developmental stage of the person exposed (the foetus is most susceptible)
- the duration of exposure
- the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact)
Common products containing mercury
- measuring devices, such as thermometers and barometers
- electric switches and relays in equipment
- lamps (including some types of light bulbs)
- dental amalgam (for dental fillings)
- skin-lightening products and other cosmetics
Effects on various parts of your body
1. Nervous system
Mercury and its compounds are neurotoxins, which attack the neurons in the human nervous system, causing damage to the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Its poisoning is especially dangerous to the neurological development of fetuses, nursing babies, and children. It is concentrated in the brain of the developing fetus because the metal is absorbed quickly and is not excreted efficiently. Children exposed to it may be born with symptoms resembling cerebral palsy, spasticity and other movement abnormalities, convulsions, visual problems and abnormal reflexes.
2. Immune System
It has been shown that mercury rapidly depletes the immune system. Mercury has been shown to induce auto-immune diseases. Mercury can cause an increase in the number and severity of allergies.
It irritates the respiratory system by causing damage to the lining of the mouth and the lungs with continued exposure.
Because it accumulates in the kidneys, prolonged exposure can cause kidney failure over time
Some cosmetic products especially soaps, lotions, eye makeup, cleansing products and creams contain mercury. These products are mainly used for skin-lightening or bleaching since mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone. Regular use can cause allergic reactions, skin rashes, irritation or chemical burns while prolonged use likely to cause kidney damage.
It accumulates in the uvea and retina of the eye .This buildup can lead to dry eye syndrome, aggressive forms of cataracts, double vision or drooping eyelids among other adverse effects.
7. Digestive system
Fish and other aquatic organisms absorb methyl mercury through their gills and as they feed on other aquatic organisms. Methyl mercury is bound tightly to the proteins in fish tissue. Skinning and trimming the fish does not significantly reduce the mercury concentration in the fish fillets and cooking does not reduce the concentrations. Humans consuming contaminated fish are therefore in danger of methyl mercury poisoning including corrosion of the stomach lining and intestines.
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