Mercury poisoning: Is it so common? Yes, we are constantly exposed to mercury in whatever small amounts. This is because it is there in soft drinks and snacks that we often enjoy. So, let us know more about this element and save our health. Mercury is naturally found everywhere which includes air, water and soil. It is released into the atmosphere due to coal burning. This mercury then settles on land and water sources like rivers. Its toxic form called methyl mercury accumulates in fish and shell-fish. These are the main sources of mercury poisoning in human beings though it does not mean that all fishes have high mercury levels. Their mercury level depends on what they eat. What are the health effects of mercury poisoning? Exposure to mercury affects multiple organs including brain, heart, lungs, immune system and kidneys. Methyl mercury is rapidly absorbed from the intestine into the blood circulation. The health effects depend on whether it is inorganic mercury salts or organic methyl mercury. Methyl mercury mainly affects the nervous system and brain. Inorganic mercury affects not only brain but also causes pneumonia, kidney damage and bleeding disorder. Some of the health effects of Mercury poisoning include:
- Ataxia: Inability to maintain body balance while standing or walking due to lack of coordination of muscles.
- Loss of vision and hearing
- Memory loss
- Emotional dysfunction occurs due to involvement of frontal lobes of brain.
- Dysarthria: difficulty in articulation.
- Neuropathy: Loss of function of nerves like sensory, motor and autonomic functions. They develop tingling sensation and numbness of limbs. Sensory loss involving hands and feet may occur. Tremors or uncontrolled vibratory movements of limbs may occur.
- Psychiatric disturbance resulting in abnormal behaviour
- Kidney damage: Reduced kidney function occurs due to death of renal tubules which form urine.
- Contact dermatitis, hyperpigmentation, stomatitis or inflammation in oral cavity. Rash may also appear over palms.
- Respiratory difficulty occurs in acute mercury exposure.
What are the common sources of exposure to mercury poisoning?
Seafood: Consumption of a lot of seafood from contaminated water is the most important cause of mercury poisoning. High-fructose corn syrup: Detectable levels of mercury have been reported in high fructose corn syrup. In a scientific study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, they reported that high fructose corn syrup may contain about 0.570 micrograms of mercury. The WHO has recommended that consumption of less than 0.2 micrograms of mercury per kilogram of body weight is within safe limits. Since the average American consumption of soft drinks and other snacks containing high fructose corn syrup is very high, it poses a risk of mercury poisoning. Soft drinks and snacks: High fructose corn syrup is used as a sweetening agent in soft drinks and other food products. Some of these favourite snacks which contain high fructose corn syrup include oatmeal, barbecue sauce, chocolate syrup, cereal bars, jellies, dressings, yogurt and other milk drinks. This probably comes from caustic soda which is used for manufacturing high fructose corn syrup. Soft drinks in which high fructose corn syrup is added as a sweetening agent are also a potential source of mercury poisoning.
What to do at home to avoid or reduce mercury poisoning? You should be careful in your selection of food that is consumed at home. Sharks and tuna are especially rich in mercury and are better avoided. Pregnant and lactating mothers should avoid consumption of large fishes. Avoid taking processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup. Read labels carefully at the time of shopping. It adds value to life. Being extra careful will go a long way to reduce and prevent further accumulation of mercury in your body. This also helps in weight loss as high fructose corn syrup consumption is associated with obesity and its complications like atherosclerosis, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, stroke and obstructive sleep apnoea.
How to get rid of mercury which is already there? In people with serious disease with symptoms described above, chelating agents are used. These are chemicals with bind with mercury or convert it into non-toxic substance which is then easily excreted. These chelating agents include dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) and Penicillamine. DMSA is the agent of choice in people with mild or chronic poisoning. For people with acute poisoning, Dimercaprol is used. If there is recent ingestion, the decontamination of the gastrointestinal tract is done. For this, activated charcoal is consumed and is known to neutralize both organic and inorganic forms of mercury. The other agent of use here is Polyethylene glycol. This is a laxative with strong osmotic effects.