When many of us think of mercury poisoning, we often think of broken glass thermometers or toxic gas. But did you know you can get mercury poisoning from eating an abundance of certain foods?

Mercury poisoning can occur from dangerous exposure or consumption of the toxic metal methylmercury. The metal can come in different forms, like a vapor, or as a chemical in the food we eat.

Mercury is naturally present in our environment but increasing rates of pollution and industrialization have caused mercury levels to rise in soil and water, infiltrating the food chain.

Causes of Mercury Poisoning

Today, consuming foods with high levels of mercury is the most common way to experience mercury poisoning. Fish are largely linked to mercury poisoning because of the water they live in. All seafood contains small amounts of mercury, but large fish tend to have higher levels of mercury because of their consumption of smaller fish that carry it as well. When someone has a diet consisting of mostly fish, they are at a higher risk of experiencing mercury related symptoms.

The most common fish with high mercury levels are:

  • Sharks
  • Swordfish
  • Tuna
  • Marlin
  • King mackerel

Children and pregnant women are most at risk for mercury poisoning. March of Dimes, a non-profit organization working to improve the health of mothers and babies, recommends no more than six ounces of tuna and eight to twelve ounces of other seafoods per week for pregnant and breastfeeding women to reduce risk of fetal or infant mercury exposure.

Less common exposure forms:

  • Toxic air in industrialized communities
  • CFL bulb breakage
  • Certain types of jewelry containing mercury in a metal form
  • Broken thermometers – please note, if you break a mercury containing thermometer, do not attempt to vacuum up or sweep with a broom as this can increase exposure. Instead, refer to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mercury Poisoning Symptoms and Treatments

Mercury poisoning is usually diagnosed with a blood or urine test to check levels in your body and presents itself with mainly neurological effects. The United States Food and Drug Administration says that too much mercury can cause the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Numbness or nerve loss in hands and face
  • Tremors
  • Hearing and speech difficulties
  • Loss of coordination and fine motor skills in children
  • Vision changes in children and adults

Long term damage from mercury poisoning can lead to permanent neurological changes, kidney damage and circulatory failure in some cases. This risk is especially high in young children.

While there is no “cure” for mercury poisoning, the best way to start your recovery is to discontinue your exposure to mercury through changes in diet, environment or lifestyle. When detected early, mercury poisoning can decrease in severity or be avoided altogether.

To prevent mercury poisoning, take the following precautions:

  • Limit your intake of larger fish, especially if pregnant and for small children.
  • Be choosy when ordering seafood dishes or sushi and try to select for lower mercury options.
  • Lookout for fish or water advisories in your area if you’re choosing to eat locally sourced seafood.
  • Wash your hands immediately if you think you’ve been exposed to mercury in other forms.

If you think you are suffering from mercury poisoning contact the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222 who can provide you further direction.

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Article by:

Matthew Eisenstat, M.D.

All posts by Matthew Eisenstat, M.D.
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