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Bureau of Epidemiology

Environmental Epidemiology Program


Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is a naturally occurring element that is found in air, water and soil. It exists in several forms: elemental or metallic mercury, inorganic mercury, and organic mercury. Pure mercury is a liquid metal that evaporates readily. It has traditionally been used to make products like thermometers, switches, and some light bulbs. Burning coal and other fossil fuels is the largest source of mercury pollution.  Factories, mining activities and the burning of trash can also increase the mercury in the environment. Mercury in the air is brought back to the earth by rain, snow, and sleet and ends up in our lakes and rivers. Methylmercury is one of the more toxic forms of mercury. Methylmercury is rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. The body absorbs about 90 to 100 percent of ingested methylmercury. Your body can change methylmercury to inorganic mercury. When this happens in the brain, the mercury can remain there for a long time. When methylmercury does leave your body after you have been exposed, it leaves slowly over a period of several months, mostly as inorganic mercury in the feces. The biological half-life of methylmercury in humans is roughly 50 to 65 days. The half-life is a measure of rate for the time required to eliminate one half of a quantity of a chemical from the body. As with inorganic mercury, some of the methylmercury in a nursing woman's body will pass into her breast milk. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. In poisoning incidents that occurred in other countries, some people who ate fish contaminated with large amounts of methylmercury or seed grains treated with methylmercury or other organic mercury compounds developed permanent damage to the brain and kidneys. Animals exposed orally to long-term, high levels of methylmercury or phenyl mercury in laboratory studies experienced damage to the kidneys, stomach, and large intestine; changes in blood pressure and heart rate; adverse effects on the developing fetus, sperm, and male reproductive organs; and increases in abortions and stillbirths.