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Mercury toxicity

Gillian Beauchamp, MD
Shana Kusin, MD
Carl-Gustaf Elinder, MD, PhD
Section Editors
Gary C Curhan, MD, ScD
Stephen J Traub, MD, FACEP, FACMT
Deputy Editor
Alice M Sheridan, MD


Mercury exists in elemental, inorganic, and organic forms, all of which may be toxic [1-3]. The toxic manifestation depends on the form of exposure. This topic reviews sources of mercury exposure, the clinical manifestations, and the treatment and prevention of mercury toxicity.

Potential toxicity from ingestion of fish during pregnancy is discussed elsewhere. (See "Nutrition in pregnancy", section on 'Fish consumption' and "Fish consumption and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplementation in pregnancy" and "Fish consumption and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplementation in pregnancy", section on 'Potential effects on preterm birth, birth weight, and growth'.)

The use of thimerosal in vaccines is discussed elsewhere. (See "Autism spectrum disorder and chronic disease: No evidence for vaccines or thimerosal as a contributing factor".)


Elemental mercury is a silver-colored liquid ("quicksilver") that is volatile at room temperature and causes pulmonary and neurologic toxicity, as well as nephrotoxicity in severe or prolonged exposures [4]. Elemental mercury is vapor at room temperature, and the major route of absorption is through the lungs [5]. Elemental mercury is poorly absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract or skin [5]. Although a small fraction of the mercury vapor taken into the lung is eliminated via exhalation, most absorbed mercury is eliminated in the feces [6,7].

The central nervous system is the major site of deposition for mercury derived from inhalation exposure of vapor.

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Literature review current through: Dec 2017. | This topic last updated: May 11, 2016.
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