Whether through the food we eat, the air we breathe or the cosmetics that we use, everyone is exposed to mercury at some level. Inhalation or ingestion of large amounts of mercury can lead to serious neurological health implications. Symptoms can include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, headaches, muscle weakness, and—in extreme cases—death.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two groups are at particularly risk: unborn babies, whose mothers have high levels of mercury in their blood, and those who are regularly exposed to elevated levels of mercury, such as subsistence fishermen.
Here are a few ways humans are exposed to the element daily:
Seafood is the main source of protein for over three billion people around the world. Because mercury “bio-accumulates” in the food chain, larger fish such as shark, swordfish, tuna and marlin tend to be especially high in mercury. People who consume very high amounts of seafood can be exposed to high levels of methylmercury, an organic compound that accumulates in the bodies of the fish.
Mercury can also be found in beauty products, particularly skin-lightening creams, but also eye make-up and eye-cleansing products. While many countries have imposed laws banning mercury from cosmetics, others have yet to do so, and mercury-tainted products have been found on major online retailers. Consumers looking to avoid the toxic element should buy products from reliable vendors and ensure that their products are properly sealed and labeled.
Artisanal and small-scale gold miners regularly use mercury to help them separate gold from other material, and most of that mercury ends up in the environment. In 2015, according to the Global Mercury Assessment, artisanal and small-scale mining emitted some 800 tonnes of mercury into the air, roughly 38 per cent of the global total, and also released some 1,200 tonnes of mercury to land and water. Mercury poisoning also represents a serious and direct health threat to the 12 million to 15 million people who work in the sector around the world.
Not only does coal burning contribute to air pollution and the climate crisis, it is also a major source of anthropogenic mercury emissions. The 2018 Global Mercury Assessment found that coal burning and other forms of fossil fuel and biomass combustion were responsible for about 24 per cent of global mercury emissions. Although coal contains only small concentrations of mercury, people tend to burn it in large volumes. As the global economy grows, so too does coal burning for power generation. The good news is that up to 95 per cent of mercury releases from power plants can be reduced by improving coal and plant performance, and improving control systems for other pollutants.
For more than a hundred years, mercury has been one of the primary ingredients in dental amalgam, the mixture that dentists use to fill the cavities in their patients’ teeth. And while amalgam probably poses only a minimal threat to the health of those who walk around with it in their mouths, the use of mercury in amalgam also contributes to a gradual build-up of the toxic element in our environment.
(This story is a part of ‘Punascha Pruthibi – One Earth. Unite for It’ awareness campaign by Sambad Digital)