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Contaminants of Concern: Mercury

Mercury and Your Health

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal, a useful chemical in some products but it can also be a potential health risk. Mercury exists in several forms - the types people are usually exposed to are methylmercury and elemental mercury. Elemental mercury at room temperature is a shiny, silver-white liquid, which can produce a harmful odorless vapor. Methylmercury, an organic compound, can build up in the bodies of long-living, predatory fish.

How can I be exposed to mercury?

Mercury cycle

The common ways people are directly exposed to mercury include:

  • Eating mercury-contaminated fish is the primary way people are exposed to mercury. Learn more about mercury in fish.
  • Skin absorption through contact with liquid mercury or mercury-containing creams and ointments.
  • Religious, ritual, or folk medicine use of elemental mercury - typically sold under the name "azogue" but may also be labeled as "vidajan" or "quicksilver."
  • Inhaling mercury vapor from mercury spills, broken fluorescent bulbs, and air pollution.
  • Some influenza vaccines contain thimerosal, a mercury preservative used to prevent contamination of vaccines. Fortunately, thimerosol is no longer present in childhood vaccines in New Mexico.
  • Dental amalgam fillings combine elemental mercury with other metals.

What products contain mercury?

Common products sold today that contain small amounts of mercury include fluorescent lights and button-cell batteries. Mercury thermometers typically are no longer sold, but having been around for years, they still turn up. Older homes may have mercury thermostats, which are not a health concern if they are unbroken and in good working condition. See EPA's list of products that may contain mercury.

What are the health effects from mercury?

Almost all people have trace amounts of mercury in their tissues. Factors that determine how severe the health effects are from mercury exposure include:

  • Form of mercury (such as methylmercury from eating fish or elemental mercury from broken fluorescent light bulbs).
  • Dose (how much a person is exposed to).
  • Health and age of the person (the fetus is the most susceptible).
  • Route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, skin contact).

Learn more about the health effects from mercury and how to reduce exposure. (498.0 KB)

Methylmercury Health Effects

For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Pregnant women who eat mercury-contaminated fish may damage their baby's growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.

Recommendations for women and children. (586.1 KB)

Elemental Mercury Health Effects

Liquid elemental mercury primarily causes health effects when it is inhaled as a vapor. These exposures can occur when elemental mercury is spilled or products that contain mercury break and release vapors into the air - this is especially a problem in warm or poorly-ventilated indoor spaces. Symptoms of inhaling mercury vapors can include nausea, respiratory problems, tremors, numbness in the fingers and toes, loss of muscle control, memory loss, kidney disease, and heart problems. Some of these effects can be reversible if the exposure stops, however, memory problems can be permanent.

Can I be tested for mercury?

A blood or urine test can determine the level of mercury stored in your body. If you are concerned, talk to your health care provider to request this test.

Mercury in light bulbs and disposing of items that contain mercury

If fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury, should I use them?

Often the use of fluorescent lights, even though they contain mercury, are preferred over incandescent light bulbs because of their energy efficiency, low heat, and long lifespan. Like all products that contain mercury, they should be taken to a hazardous waste facility for disposal.

How do I dispose of  items containing mercury?

To keep mercury out of the fish we eat and the air we breathe, it's important to take mercury-containing products to a hazardous waste facility for disposal. All mercury-containing products, such as old mercury thermometers, thermostats, fluorescent lights, and containers of elemental mercury are considered hazardous and must be properly disposed of at a hazardous waste facility. Broken fluorescent bulbs, mercury thermometers, and the materials used to clean up the spill should also be taken to a hazardous waste facility.

Recycling Drop-off Locations (13.7 KB)

Frequently Asked Questions About Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs and Mercury (92.1 KB)

NMED regulatory guidance for the disposal of fluorescent bulbs and ballasts. (42.5 KB)

Learn more about Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)

What to Do if a Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulb or Fluorescent Tube Light Bulb Breaks in Your Home

Fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. When a fluorescent bulb breaks in your home, some of this mercury is released as mercury vapor. The broken bulb can continue to release mercury vapor until it is cleaned up and removed from the residence.

To minimize exposure to mercury vapor, EPA recommends that residents follow these cleanup and disposal steps. (94.2 KB)