Mercury and health

Mercury has been identified by WHO (The World Health Organisation) as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern. Everybody is exposed to some level of mercury.

Key points about mercury

  • Mercury is an element found naturally in water, air and soil.
  • Exposure to mercury – even small amounts – can cause serious health problems and it's considered by the World Health Organisation to be a major public health concern.
  • It is a threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life and may have toxic effects on your nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.
  • You are mainly exposed to methylmercury (an organic compound) when you eat fish and shellfish containing it.  

What is mercury?

Mercury is a natural element found in the earth's crust and exists in various forms:

  • Elemental (or metallic) and inorganic – you may be exposed through your occupation, eg, by inhaling mercury vapours from industrial processes.
  • Organic (eg, methylmercury) – you may be exposed through your diet.

Mercury can be released into the environment from a range of natural activities (volcanic activity and weathering of rocks) and human ones such as mining, coal-fired power stations, waste incinerators, home heating and cooking with coal-based products and various industrial processes. 

Bacteria in the environment can transform mercury into organic methylmercury which can then accumulate in the food chain as plankton or shellfish, eaten by fish, which are eaten by larger fish and then by humans. This means that larger, predatory fish are likely to have higher levels of mercury as they have accumulated it from eating other fish. Other fish with higher levels of mercury are those that live for a long time and those living in lakes or rivers supplied by geothermal water.

Image: Canva

Mercury is not affected by heat so cooking doesn't protect us from mercury in our foods.

What effects does mercury have on health?

Mercury in all its forms is toxic to humans and animals resulting in damage to our nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. The severity can be mild through to fatal.  

Symptoms and signs of mercury toxicity

Symptoms of mercury exposure or toxicity can include:

  • tremors
  • insomnia
  • memory loss
  • skin and eye burns from direct contact to corrosive inorganic salts of mercury
  • gastrointestinal damage from ingestion
  • neuromuscular effects
  • headaches
  • cognition and thinking difficulties
  • behavioural disorders
  • motor dysfunction
  • proteinuria through to kidney failure.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone can be exposed to mercury poisoning, but 3 groups are at higher risk:

  • Pregnant women and their unborn babies as mercury is toxic to their developing brains (results in learning difficulties, poor coordination, attention, vision and cognition problems).
  • Workers employed in industries where mercury can be released into the environment or the vapour inhaled.
  • Populations relying on fish and shellfish as a staple food, eg, fishing communities in Brazil, China, Canada, Columbia and Greenland.

Prevention – how to reduce human exposure to mercury

The World Health Organisation and other large groups have identified key changes to reduce and prevent mercury exposure. These include:

  • promoting the use of clean energy sources that don't burn coal 
  • stopping the use of mercury in gold mining
  • stopping the mining of mercury
  • phasing out non-essential mercury-containing products such as batteries, thermometers, dental fillings, lamps, skin lightening products and other cosmetics
  • careful recycling of mercury
  • safer work practices where mercury is used.

Advice on eating fish

The Ministry for Primary Industries in Aotearoa New Zealand suggests there are certain fish with higher levels of mercury you should be aware of either if you're pregnant, or if you eat a lot of fish and are exposed to more mercury. These are listed as:

  • cardinalfish
  • dogfish (excluding rig)
  • Lake Rotomahana trout
  • lake trout from geothermal regions
  • school shark (greyboy, tope)
  • marlin (striped)
  • southern bluefin tuna
  • swordfish.

Cleaning up mercury spills in your house

If a mercury thermometer breaks (or other items containing around ¼ teaspoon or less of mercury), you may be able to clean it up yourself by following the Ministry of Health information sheet.

If you spill more than this amount, you should follow this advice and seek help from professional hazardous waste disposal companies to clean up the spill. Contractors can be contacted through the Yellow Pages under “Waste Disposal”.

View the Ministry of Health advice about mercury spills. 

Information for healthcare providers

Mercury fact sheet World Health Organisation, 2022
Technical guidance on replacement of mercury thermometers and sphygmomanometers, World Health Organisation, 2011

References

  1. Mercury and food fact sheet World Health Organisation, 2017
  2. Mercury levels in fish Ministry for Primary Industries, NZ, 2020
  3. Cleaning up mercury spills in your house Ministry of Health, NZ, 2015 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 17 Nov 2022