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Indiana State Department of Health

Mercury Mercury

Mercury has been found in at least 600 of 1177 National Priorities List sites (hazardous waste site) identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, the number of NPL sites evaluated for mercury is not known. As EPA evaluates more sites, the number of sites at which mercury is found may increase. When a substance is released from an industrial plant or from a container, it does not always lead to exposure. You can be exposed to a chemical only when you come into contact with it. Exposures occur through breathing, eating, or drinking substances containing the chemical, or from skin contact with it. If you are exposed to mercury, the appearance of symptoms and their seriousness is dependant upon how much, how long, and the route of exposure. Your sex, age, lifestyle, and state of health also contribute.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a metal (element) that occurs naturally in the environment in several forms. In the metallic or elemental form, mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid, sometimes found in thermometers. Mercury also combines with other elements to form inorganic mercury compounds or "salts". It can also form a chemical bond with carbon to create organomercurial compounds.

The most common form of mercury found at hazardous waste sites is methylmercury. It is created from inorganic mercury by microorganisms and natural processes. This form of mercury is of particular importance as it can build up in certain fish to levels that are many times greater than in the surrounding water.

How does mercury enter the environment?

It is naturally occurring as a result of normal breakdown of minerals in the earth's crust. Inorganic mercury enters the air from the burning of coal or garbage and from the emissions of factories that use mercury. Once in water, methylmercury remains there for along time. Small fish and other organisms can take it up.

How might I be exposed to mercury?

Eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury. Absorbing mercury vapors released from dental fillings. Using medicinal products, such as antiseptics or skin lightening creams. Breathing air, drinking water, or coming in to contact with soil contaminated with mercury. Breaking a thermometer that contains mercury may also result in exposure from inhalation of mercury vapors.  If this occurs or you just want to know what to do if this should happen, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) has information at: http://www.in.gov/idem/your_environment/mercury/spill.pdf.

This information also includes the state health department contact for indoor air sampling.

How can mercury affect my health?

Long-term exposure to either organic or inorganic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidney, and developing fetuses. The form of mercury and the way people are exposed to it determines which of these health effects will be more severe. Short-term exposure to high levels of inorganic and organic mercury will have similar health effect. Full recovery is more likely after short-term exposures, once the body clears itself of the contamination.

Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed?

Blood or urine samples can be taken in a doctor's office and tested using special equipment in the laboratory.

For more information contact:

Indiana State Department of Health
Environmental Epidemiology Section
2 N. Meridian Street, Section 3-D
Indianapolis, IN 46204
317/351-7190 Ext 262

This fact sheet was supported in whole by funds from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.