Properties and Health Effects

Mercury and its compounds exist in three general forms:

  • Elemental (or metallic).
  • Inorganic. Mercury can combine with other elements (mainly chlorine, sulfur, and oxygen) to form inorganic mercury compounds.
  • Organic. Mercury may combine with carbon or carbon-containing substances to make organic mercury compounds. These organic compounds are further divided between alkyl (carbon-chain) and aryl (aromatic ring) groups.

Although all mercury compounds are toxic, the small-chain alkyl compounds are the most hazardous. Mercury compounds vary in toxicity, so OSHA provides standards for each. It is important to clarify which category a compound belongs to before comparing it with a standard or determining its relative toxicity.

Health Effects

According to Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), mercury is not classifiable as a human carcinogen, although the EPA classifies mercury chloride and methyl mercury as possible human carcinogens. The following resources contain valuable information about the health effects of mercury.

  • Mercury Compounds. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Discusses hazards associated with mercury exposure, both acute and chronic.
  • NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication No. 2005-149, (September 2007). Contains exposure limits, physical description, health effects, and personal protective equipment.
  • ToxFAQs™ for Mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), (April 1999). Contains general information on mercury.
  • Public Health Statement for Mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), (March 1999). Discusses exposure pathways, health effects, and exposure limits.
  • Mercury - What are the potential health effect of mercury?. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). Discusses the main health effects of mercury as well as local and systematic effects.
  • Mercury, elemental (CASRN 7439-97-6). Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Discusses oral RfD assessment, inhalation RfC assessment and carcinogenity assessment, and evaluates evidence and documentation review.
  • Dimethylmercury. OSHA Hazard Information Bulletin (HIB), (March 9, 1998). Provides information about a death of a chemistry professor in June 1997 was apparently due to a single exposure to dimethylmercury.
  • Occupational Health Guidelines for Chemical Hazards. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication No. 81-123, (January 1981). Provides a table of contents of guidelines for many hazardous chemicals. The files provide technical chemical information, including chemical and physical properties, health effects, exposure limits, and recommendations for medical monitoring, personal protective equipment (PPE), and control procedures.
Epidemiological Studies
  • Jones, L., J. Bunnell, and J. Stillman. "A 30-year follow-up of residual effects on New Zealand School Dental Nurses, from occupational mercury exposure." Human & Experimental Toxicology 26.4(2007): 367-375.
  • Williams, PL., et al. "Reconstruction of Occupational Mercury Exposures at a Chloralkali Plant." Occupational Environmental Medicine 58.2(2001): 81-86.
  • Frumkin, H., et al. "Health effects of long-term mercury exposure among chloralkali plant workers." Am. J. Ind. Med. 39.1(2001): 1-18.
  • Domingo, J., et al. "Levels of Metals and Organic Substances in Blood and Urine of Workers at a New Hazardous Waste Incinerator." Int. Arch. Occupational Environmental Health 74.4(2001): 263-269.
Occupational Exposures
  • Donoghue, AM. "Mercury Toxicity Due to the Smelting of Placer Gold Recovered by Mercury." Occupational Medicine 48.6(1998): 413-415.
  • Bellander, T. and E. Merler. "Historical Exposure to Inorganic Mercury at the Smelter Works of Abbadia San Salvatore, Italy." Annals of Occupational Hygiene 42.2(1998): 81-90.
  • Bittner, A., et al. "Behavioral Effects of Low-Level Exposure to Hg-0 Among Dental Professionals: A Cross-Study Evaluation of Psychomotor Effects." Neurotoxicology and Teratology 20.4(1998): 429-439.
  • Burger, J., K. Gaines, and M. Gochfeld. "Ethnic Differences in Risk from Mercury Among Savannah River Fishermen." Risk Anal. 21.3(2001): 533-544.
  • Echeverria, D. "Mercury and Dentists." Occupational Environmental Medicine 59.5(2002): 285-286.
  • Koizumi, A., et al. "Mercury, Not Sulphur Dioxide, Poisoning as Cause of Smelter Disease in Industrial Plants Producing Sulphuric Acid." Lancet 343.8910(1994): 1411-1412.
  • Krochmalnyckyj, R. "Exposure to Mercury From a Metal Furnace." Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene 10.9(1995): 730-732.
  • Ritchie KA, Burke FJ, Gilmour WH, Macdonald EB, Dale IM, Hamilton RM, McGowan DA, Binnie V, Collington D, Hammersley R. Mercury vapour levels in dental practices and body mercury levels of dentists and controls. Br Dent J. 2004 Nov 27;197(10):625-32; discussion 621.
  • Ritchie KA, Gilmour WH, Macdonald EB, Burke FJ, McGowan DA, Dale IM, Hammersley R, Hamilton RM, Binnie V, Collington D. Health and neuropsychological functioning of dentists exposed to mercury. Occup Environ Med. 2002 May;59(5):287-93.
  • Sattler, B. "Environmental Health in the Health Care Setting." Am. Nurse 34.2(2002): 25-38; quiz 39-40.