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What is Mercury?
- Elemental (metallic) mercury
- Inorganic mercury compounds
- Methylmercury and other organic compounds
Elemental (Metallic) Mercury
Elemental or metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white metal, historically referred to as quicksilver, and is liquid at room temperature. It is used in older thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs and some electrical switches. When dropped, elemental mercury breaks into smaller droplets which can go through small cracks or become strongly attached to certain materials. At room temperature, exposed elemental mercury can evaporate to become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor. If heated, it is a colorless, odorless gas. Learn about how people are most often exposed to elemental mercury and about the adverse health effects that exposures to elemental mercury can produce.
In its inorganic form, mercury occurs abundantly in the environment, primarily as the minerals cinnabar and metacinnabar, and as impurities in other minerals. Mercury can readily combine with chlorine, sulfur, and other elements, and subsequently weather to form inorganic salts. Inorganic mercury salts can be transported in water and occur in soil. Dust containing these salts can enter the air from mining deposits of ores that contain mercury. Emissions of both elemental or inorganic mercury can occur from coal-fired power plants, burning of municipal and medical waste, and from factories that use mercury. Inorganic mercury can also enter water or soil from the weathering of rocks that contain inorganic mercury salts, and from factories or water treatment facilities that release water contaminated with mercury.
Although the use of mercury salts in consumer products, such as medicinal products, have been discontinued, inorganic mercury compounds are still being widely used in skin lightening soaps and creams. Mercuric chloride is used in photography and as a topical antiseptic and disinfectant, wood preservative, and fungicide. In the past, mercurous chloride was widely used in medicinal products, including laxatives, worming medications, and teething powders. It has since been replaced by safer and more effective agents. Mercuric sulfide is used to color paints and is one of the red coloring agents used in tattoo dyes.
Human exposure to inorganic mercury salts can occur both in occupational and environmental settings. Occupations with higher risk of exposure to mercury and its salts include mining, electrical equipment manufacturing, and chemical and metal processing in which mercury is used. In the general population, exposure to mercuric chloride can occur through the dermal route from the use of soaps and creams or topical antiseptics and disinfectants. Another, less well-documented, source of exposure to inorganic mercury salts among the general population is from their use in ethnic religious, magical, and ritualistic practices and in herbal remedies.
When inorganic mercury salts can become attached to airborne particles. Rain and snow deposit these particles on land. Even after mercury gets deposited on land, it often returns to the atmosphere, as a gas or associated with particles, and then redeposits elsewhere.
As it cycles between the atmosphere, land, and water, mercury undergoes a series of complex chemical and physical transformations, many of which are not completely understood. Microscopic organisms can combine mercury with carbon, thus converting it from an inorganic to organic form. Methylmercury is the most common organic mercury compound found in the environment, and is highly toxic. Learn about how people are most often exposed to methylmercury and about the adverse health effects that exposures to methylmercury can produce.