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Prevent Mercury Poisoning

by Sandra Bynum
The Challenge

Mercury poisoning can have devastating effects on wildlife and humans.

Mercury can cause growth inhibition, deformities, and high mortality in embryos of fish, amphibians, and birds. Exposure to lower doses of mercury can affect the development and function of the central nervous system in young children, and at higher doses is lethal to humans and other living organisms.

When airborne mercury pollution from incinerators and power plants falls back to earth and enters our waterways, mercury contaminates lakes and rivers. In the aquatic environment, mercury then transforms into its toxic form, methylmercury, and moves up the aquatic food chain, from microbes to aquatic insects, fish, amphibians, water birds, and mammals.

In recent years, certain species of fish have been proven to be more adversely affected by mercury than others. Subsequently, in 2004, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration issued mercury guidelines cautioning pregnant women and young children to limit or avoid ingestion of specific types of fish, including canned tuna.

Alarmingly, recent studies have shown that even in landlocked areas, where inorganic mercury was considered to be relatively harmless, mercury poisoning is more prevalent in wildlife than previously thought.

One of the problems is that mercury is used in so many different facets of modern life. Mercury is found in devices throughout our homes, schools, and hospitals. Most of these devices are safe as long as the mercury is sealed, but if a device is broken or disposed of improperly, toxic mercury will eventually be released into the environment.

Probably the most commonly found mercury hazard is the mercury thermometer, which can still be found in schools, homes, and health care facilities. Although small, a broken thermometer can leak enough released mercury to harm a child or to contaminate a 20-acre lake. Even unbroken, once a mercury thermometer enters a landfill, that mercury still poses an environmental hazard. Fortunately, anti-mercury campaigns organized by Health Care Without Harm and other similar organizations have recently convinced many of the largest pharmacy chains to stop selling mercury thermometers in favor of digital or alcohol-filled alternatives; and hundreds of hospitals and health care systems have agreed to phase them out.

However, because so many old mercury thermometers still lurk in medicine cabinets across the country, the risk of a broken thermometer and spilled mercury is still very serious.

You can help to alleviate environmental mercury poisoning by voluntarily eliminating mercury usage within your home and workplace, and by learning how to safely dispose of used or spilled mercury.

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  • Switch to mercury-free alternatives. Mercury is hidden in a surprisingly large number of household items, most of which have non-mercury replacements or mercury-reliant features that we can do without.  Examples are older-model thermostats, telephones with a mute switch, appliances with a tilt-switch, doorbells, fluorescent lamps (including the new compact fluorescent bulbs), certain batteries, and curling irons with a shut-off switch. 
  • Eliminate mercury in our schools. An educational mercury curriculum package is freely available for download, which includes information and activities for students, school staff, and families.
  • Properly clean-up and dispose of spilled mercury. For example, did you know that fluorescent lamps, including the newer compact fluorescent bulbs, contain mercury powder residue? It is extremely important to clean-up broken fluorescent lamps properly so that the powder is not inhaled or allowed to blow into the atmosphere. To eliminate exposure and possible mercury poisoning, a specific procedure must be used to clean up liquid mercury spills. For example, never use a vacuum cleaner or a broom to clean up mercury.  Never throw any form of used or spilled mercury in the trash. Detailed, downloadable information is available to learn how to safely clean up a mercury spill. You'll learn how to protect yourself, what materials you'll need, and what step-by-step procedures to follow for safer clean-up and disposal of spilled mercury.

Essential to your health and the health of our environment is proper disposal of used mercury at an appropriate hazardous waste collection facility. Contact your local health department for information and the location of a hazardous waste collection site in your area.

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