by Krisha McCoy, MS
Mercury toxicity occurs when a person is exposed to mercury. Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal. Short- or long-term exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems.
Mercury has several forms, including:
Metallic mercury and methylmercury easily reach the brain and are more harmful than mercury salts.
Mercury toxicity may occur when you are exposed to toxic amounts of mercury due to:
Metallic mercury can be found in consumer products such as fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, thermostats, and old thermometers.
Mercury, combined with other elements, is also found in some types of dental fillings. Research has not shown that this type of filling is harmful to people. Thimerosol is a preservative in some vaccines. It contains a very small amount of a type of mercury but many studies showed it was not harmful to people.
Anyone can develop mercury toxicity as a result of mercury exposure. Certain people are more likely to be exposed to mercury. The following factors increase your chances of being exposed to mercury. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
In addition, pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and young children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure.
Mercury can cause harmful effects before symptoms develop. It is important to contact your doctor right away if you think you have been exposed to mercury, regardless of your symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Tests may include:
The most important thing is to stop mercury exposure. Talk with your doctor about other treatments for you. Treatment options include:
Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical known as a chelating agent into the bloodstream. The chelating agent combines with mercury to help remove it from the body. Chelating agents may be given by pill or by injection.
To help reduce the chances of mercury toxicity:
If you spill a small amount of metallic mercury:
US Environmental Protection Agency
US Food & Drug Administration
Health effects of exposures to mercury. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/mercury/health-effects-exposures-mercury. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Mercury and your health. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mercury. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish (1990-2012). US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm115644.htm. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Vearrier D, Greenberg MI. Care of patients who are worried about mercury poisoning from dental fillings. J Am Board Fam Med. 2010;23(6):797-798.
Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP