Mercury is a naturally occurring metal typically found in the form of cinnabar ore which contains mercuric sulfide. When the ore is heated mercury is vaporized, captured and cooled to form the familiar liquid metal. At room temperature mercury is a silvery odorless liquid which vaporizes easily. Mercury is used in thermometers, thermostats, electronics, propellant and fluorescent lamps.
Mercury in the Environment
Mercury pollution can contaminate air, water, and soil. The largest source of atmospheric mercury results from the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. In Nevada the largest source of atmospheric mercury is caused from processing gold through precious metal mines operations. Once mercury is released into the atmosphere through smokestacks and processing emissions, it can travel long distances, settle on soil and wash into lakes and rivers.
Mercury in lakes and rivers is converted into methyl mercury by certain bacteria. Fish ingest methyl mercury by swimming or feeding in contaminated water. Methyl mercury accumulates in fish tissue and is carried up the food chain to larger fish, animals and humans. Methyl mercury is dangerous because the concentration of methyl mercury increases as it goes up the food chain.
Mercury & Human Health
Mercury is bioaccumulative in organic systems, which means that mercury ingested by an organism will remain in the body. Mercury can effect people’s health through both long-term low-level exposures, and through short-term acute exposures, such as direct contact with elemental mercury.
The most universal effect of mercury is damage to the nervous system causing mental instability, dizziness, numbness in the limbs and personality changes such as nervousness, increased excitability or insomnia. Children should be cautioned not to play with mercury.