Toxic Metals: Mercury


Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum
Water Quality - Pollutant Sources and Impacts

Hg MercuryMercury in its elemental form is a shiny liquid nicknamed quicksilver. Toxicity effects include damage to nerve and muscle systems and can cause death (see EXPLORE). Chronic exposure can lead to emotional problems. Hat makers in the 1800s used mercury to prepare furs and this exposure often led to strange behaviors. This is where the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland got his name.

Today, one of the most common mercury products is the amalgam used in dental fillings. Amalgam accounts for more than half of the total mercury used commercially. Although there is no evidence that dental fillings pose health risks, the use of mercury amalgam is being phased out to reduce discharges of mercury to nature.

Mercury enters the environment when coal is burned to make electric power. The mercury falls back to the earth and into lakes where microbes change it into a special form (methylmercury) which can build up in fish. It is especially important to protect unborn babies (who get the mercury through their mothers) and children from mercury pollution. The government tells us what kinds and how much fish is safe to eat.

Mad Hatter Tea PartyCoalFisherman


In 1932, Chisso Co. began using Minamata's bay as a repository for its mercury waste, poisoning thousands of people, and killing hundreds. Because of this tragedy, mercury poisoning is also called Minamata disease.

Mad as a Hatter


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