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Q: How Am I Exposed?

Mercury pollution in the air is the most common source of exposure, and this mercury comes from power plant smokestacks, mining, and other industrial activities. Mercury lands in the water and on the land, and can then move into the food chain. Physicians For Social Responsibility (PSR) state: “When mercury lands in bodies of water, it moves up the food chain from the tiniest fish to the bigger ones that eat them. The older and larger these fish get, the more mercury collects in their flesh.” People are then exposed to mercury by eating contaminated fish.

Other sources of mercury exposure include:

  • Dental amalgams used to fill cavities — the major source of inorganic mercury exposure in the general population;
  • Drugs and related products, including topical mercury-based skin creams, infant teething;
  • Powders, contact solutions, nasal sprays, and some vaccines;
  • Breaking of household items that contain mercury, such as old thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs (for how to clean up breaks, see the EPA website);
  • Some magico-religious rituals and folk remedies.

Q: What Can I Do?

  • Children and women of childbearing age can avoid eating fish that are known to accumulate mercury, such as tuna or swordfish: see the Got Mercury? website for a guide;
  • Follow local and state fish advisories posted here;
  • Get a fish and seafood guide to help you make smart fish purchases in groceries and restaurants. A wallet guide is available at (202) 667-4260 or online here;
  • Ask your dentist about alternatives to mercury based amalgam for filling cavities;
  • Ask your doctor if any vaccinations that are being suggested for your child might contain thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury;
  • Dispose of toxic waste, such as mercury thermometers, burned-out fluorescent light bulbs, or spent alkaline batteries, at an appropriate site;
  • Urge your government officials to act to reduce the amount of mercury being released into the environment.

Adapted from the Practice Prevention Columns on the Collaborative on Health and the Environment website, and other sources as indicated.