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Epidemiology and toxicity of mercury

Carl-Gustaf Elinder, MD, PhD
Section Editor
Gary C Curhan, MD, ScD
Deputy Editor
Alice M Sheridan, MD


Mercury exists in metallic, inorganic, and organic forms, which are characterized by different toxic properties. Metallic and organic forms, the latter found as methylated mercury in contaminated fish, are toxic to the central nervous system and the fetus, whereas inorganic forms of mercury may affect the kidneys. Although mercury is a silvery white liquid, the metal is volatile at room temperature because of its high vapor pressure. Mercury also exists in different oxidation states and can form a number of organomercuric compounds. These physical properties contribute to the considerable toxicity observed with mercury. In order of importance, the principal organ systems affected by mercury poisoning are the central nervous system and the kidneys [1-3].


The unique physical properties of mercury have led to its use from prehistoric times to the present day.

Colored cave drawings from more than 10,000 years ago have been found to contain the red stone of mercury ore (cinnabar, mercury sulfide, HgS).

In the 19th century, epidemics of occupational mercury poisoning resulted from heavy exposure to mercury in the mirror and felt hat industries.

Mercury is still used in the manufacture of many technical and medical instruments, including sphygmomanometers, manometers, thermometers, and barometers.


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Literature review current through: Oct 2015. | This topic last updated: Sep 18, 2014.
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