What is elemental mercury?
Elemental mercury metal is a very heavy, shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid at room temperature. It is used to make many different kinds of products including electrical switches, batteries, and medical devices such as thermometers. It is used in industry to manufacture chlorine and process gold ore. The body does not readily absorb liquid mercury through the skin or stomach. However, the liquid evaporates at room temperature, especially when heated. If inhaled, mercury vapors can be highly toxic.
What immediate health effects can result from elemental mercury exposure?
Inhaling high concentrations of mercury vapor can cause a cough, chills, fever, and shortness of breath, and sometimes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms do not usually develop immediately: they might appear a few hours after exposure. Symptoms might resolve or gradually progress to cause serious damage to the lungs and kidneys. Unintentional swallowing of liquid mercury usually causes no health effects.
Can elemental mercury poisoning be treated?
Typically, low-level exposure to elemental mercury leads to no lasting health effects and treatment is not needed. Severely affected individuals must be hospitalized.
Are any future health effects likely to occur?
A single small exposure from which a person recovers quickly is not likely to cause delayed or long-term effects. After a serious exposure, damage to the lungs, kidneys, and central nervous system might occur.
What tests can be done if a person has been exposed to elemental mercury?
Specific tests for the presence of mercury in blood and urine can be useful to assess the level of exposure. If a severe exposure has occurred, x-rays and blood and urine tests might show whether or not the lungs and kidneys have been damaged. Testing is not needed in every case.
Where can more information about elemental mercury be found?
If the exposure happened at work, you might be required to contact your employer and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Employees may request a Health Hazard Evaluation from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
You can obtain more information about mercury from your regional poison control center; your state, county, or local health department; the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR); your doctor; or a clinic in your area that specializes in occupational and environmental health.