Mercury is a metal with chemical similarities to zinc and cadmium. The metal is liquid at room temperature, with a freezing point at –31°C, and it is one of the most volatile metals. It occurs as the element Hg 0 and as the mercuric ion Hg ++ , which has a great affinity for reduced sulfur (sulfide, S = ). Most mercury ore deposits consist of the very insoluble mineral cinnabar (HgS), with little droplets of elemental Hg. Mercury also occurs as impurities in many other ore minerals, creating mercury contamination when these minerals are mined or processed. Most common rocks have very low Hg contents, about ten to one hundred parts per billion (ppb) Hg . Elemental mercury is barely soluble in pure water, with only twenty-five ppb Hg dissolving at room temperature, but it is more soluble at higher temperatures. The mercuric ion is very soluble in most ambient waters, but very insoluble in the presence of sulfide. Natural enrichments of mercury occur in and around ore deposits and in geothermal hot spring areas and volcanoes. Bacteria in coastal waters convert inorganic Hg ions back into the elemental state, which then evaporate from the water back into the atmosphere. The physical transport of mercury from ore regions and the vapor transport from geothermal areas and the oceans provide the natural background contamination of mercury.

Mercury is a toxic element that damages the human nervous system and brain. Elemental mercury is less dangerous when it is ingested than when it is inhaled. The use of mercury in felt-making led to widespread elemental mercury poisoning of hatmakers ("mad as a hatter"), which was expressed by tremor, loss of hair and teeth, depression, and occasional death. The organic forms of mercury—methylmercury compounds, CH 3 Hg + and (CH 3 ) 2 Hg—are very bioavailable or are easily taken up by living organisms and rapidly enter cells, and are therefore the most hazardous. Minamata disease was an episode of mercury poisoning of a small coastal community in Japan (1954) through the direct industrial release of methylmercury in the bay. Another infamous episode of mercury contamination occurred in Iraq, where people ate wheat that was treated with a mercury-containing fungicide. The continuous flux of mercury from the atmosphere results in the low level of mercury pollution nationwide. A small fraction of the Hg ++ from atmospheric deposition is converted by bacteria into the very dangerous methylmercury form. The methylmercury is then taken up by the lowest life forms and makes its way up the food chain and bioaccumulates in the larger fish. As a result, large predator fish such as bass, tuna, shark, and swordfish have the highest levels of Hg in the methylmercury form. Most states in the United States have advisories for eating only limited amounts of freshwater fish. Limiting intake of mercury-contaminated fish is especially important for pregnant women and young children. The current U.S. legal limit for Hg in fish for consumption is 1 ppm. Limits for Hg in soils vary from state to state but generally range from 10 to 20 ppm, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency's limit for drinking water is 2 ppb Hg. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits for Hg in the air in the workplace (for an eight-hour average) are 0.01 mg organic Hg/m 3 air.

Modern sources of mercury contamination from human activities are subdivided into the following groups:

  1. High-temperature combustion processes such as coal-fired power plants, incineration of solid household waste, medical waste, sewage sludge, and ore smelting.
  2. Industrial waste effluents, such as from chlor-alkali plants that use liquid mercury as electrodes.
  3. Effluents of wastewater treatment plants.
  4. Point sources of specific industries, many of them no longer active today (such as hat making, explosives, mercury lights, herbicides, and plastics).

An overview of modern anthropogenic Hg fluxes into the environment shows that more than 80 percent of mercury is injected into the atmosphere through such combustion processes as coal-fired power plants. The combustion releases mercury as elemental vapor into the atmosphere, where it has an average residence time of about one year before it is oxidized to the mercuric form. The oxidized mercury attaches itself to small dust particles and is removed by wet and dry atmospheric deposition. As a result of this massive injection of Hg into the atmosphere—more than 100 tons of Hg per year in the United States in the late 1990s—the contaminant is distributed all over the globe. Even the polar ice caps show evidence of mercury contamination over the last 150 years, from atmospheric dispersal and deposition from anthropogenic sources. There are almost no places on earth that are not contaminated by anthropogenic mercury.

Mercury contamination is a matter of ongoing concern, and an extensive study was done for the U.S. Congress to summarize the sources, pathways, and sinks of mercury in the outdoor environment. There are several initiatives to limit the anthropogenic flux of Hg from coal-fired power plants, such as switching to mercury-poor coals and scrubbing the stack gases. Limiting or banning the production of mercury-containing materials, including switches, thermometers, thermostats, and manometers, both in the household as well as in the medical profession, would also reduce the mercury recycled back into the atmosphere from garbage incineration.


Internet Resource

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Mercury Study Report to Congress." Available from .

Johan C. Varekamp

The most common exposure to mercury in the home comes when a mercury thermometer is dropped and broken. Children should be removed from the room immediately. DO NOT VACUUM SPILLED MERCURY. Vacuuming will disperse the mercury into the air; inhaling mercury poses high risk. Mercury naturally beads and if it is on a hard surface, it can be scooped up with index cards or a file folder. Seal in a ziplock bag and call the health department or a hospital to arrange safe disposal. Call the health department if mercury has spilled on a carpet or other fabric.

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