Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is one of only four metals that stay liquid at room temperature. Used for centuries in the medical industry, it has now become known as an environmental hazard and raised concerns about its use in industrial settings. It is one of the most dangerous metals known.
Together with lead, mercury causes thousands of poisonings a year, almost all of which come from broken thermometers and simple household items, such as broken fluorescent light bulbs and certain latex paints. This metal is also found in electrical switches, certain art supplies, blood pressure cuffs, and dental amalgams. Many fungicides and pesticides also contain mercury. There are several drugs and common vaccines that contain small amounts as an essential ingredient. The United States Food and Drug Administration website has a full list of items that contain this metal.
When it enters the body, mercury affects the central nervous system, injuring the kidneys, and producing severe brain damage. The vapors cause serious respiratory system disorders, including pneumonitis. Much of the damage caused by this metal is irreversible.
Mercury is released into the environment by several processes, including burning coal and hazardous waste disposal. If the metal gets into the water supply, it causes a double problem, since it eventually builds up in fish that are eventually consumed by people. As a result, many types of fish now contain levels of mercury dangerous enough to be considered a serious hazard. In fact, methylmercury is now one of the main causes of mercury poisoning in humans. The environmental presence of this metal also has an effect on birds, which have been known to suffer retarded development and even death due to mercury exposure. Predators that feed primarily on fish or birds are also at risk as a consequence.
Pregnant women exposed to mercury have a higher risk of having a baby with birth defects and development problems. Because this metal can cause serious damage to the brain, it has been linked to ADD and other common learning and behavioral problems.
In addition, part of the danger of this metal is that it's still being used in many items that are part of daily life. By reducing mercury's presence, it may be possible to also reduce its effects.