What is mercury?
Mercury (also known by the chemical symbol ‘Hg’) is an odourless, silver, naturally occurring liquid metal. It can be converted to 3 main forms:
- elemental (metallic) mercury (Hg0)
- inorganic mercury salts, for example mercuric chloride
- organic mercury, for example methyl mercury.
Where mercury is commonly found
Mercury is used in a number of production and manufacturing processes including the chemical production of chlorine, caustic soda and disinfectants, and as a catalyst to speed-up chemical reactions.
Mercury is also used in:
- electrical equipment
- thermometers and other measuring and control instruments
- compact fluorescent lamps (also known as energy-saving light globes)
- dental amalgam
- paints and pigments
- gold and silver mining and extraction.
How mercury enters your body
Mercury can enter your body in a number of ways:
- it can be absorbed through the skin
- by drinking contaminated water
- by eating contaminated food (ingestion)
- through breathing contaminated air (inhalation).
What are the symptoms of mercury exposure?
Exposure to all forms of mercury at high levels can lead to permanent damage of:
- the kidneys
- the liver
- the brain
- a developing baby (foetus).
The symptoms of mercury exposure depend on:
- the form of mercury you have been exposed to
- the amount you have been exposed to
- how long you have been exposed to it
- whether you have been exposed through eating or drinking, skin contact or inhalation.
Both a single exposure to very high levels of mercury (acute exposure) and long term exposure at lower levels (chronic exposure) can cause adverse health effects as mercury can build up in your body.
Your nervous system is particularly sensitive to mercury exposure. Symptoms may include tremors (shaking) and vision, hearing and memory problems.
Effects of inhaling mercury fumes
Inhaling mercury fumes can cause:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- fluid build-up in the lungs (pulmonary oedema).
Long-term (chronic) inhalation of mercury fumes can cause:
- hypertension (high blood pressure)
Effects of ingesting mercury
Ingesting mercury can cause haemorrhagic gastroenteritis (bleeding and inflammation of the stomach and intestines) and abdominal pain.
If mercury is swallowed by a child
Call the WA Poisons Information Centre (national call centre) on 13 11 26.
Read more about the WA Poisons Information Centre (external site).
Mercury in fish
In marine environments, mercury is released into the water from volcanic and seismic (earthquake related) activity. Fish feeding in these waters build up mercury in their bodies from the water and plant material. As smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish, the mercury levels can bioaccumulate (build up and increase in concentration in living tissue/organisms) and increase with the size of the fish. Large carnivorous fish (for example swordfish) can have particularly high levels of mercury because they consume small fish and often have a longer lifespan (allowing more mercury to bioaccumulate).
Pregnant women should be aware that a developing baby’s nervous system is particularly sensitive to high levels of mercury through eating certain types of fish. For advice on reducing exposure to mercury from food while pregnant please visit the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (external site).
Where to get help
- Call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 (24 hours a day) if you suspect poisoning.
- See your doctor.
- Visit a GP after hours.
- Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
- Mercury can enter your body in a number of ways.
- Exposure to mercury can cause adverse health effects, whether from a single exposure to very high levels of mercury (acute exposure) or long term exposure at lower levels.
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.