As we learn more in the fields of chemistry and biology, we often discover that substances we thought were safe and even helpful for curing illnesses are in fact quite dangerous. Such is the case for mercury. To be clear, I am talking about the chemical element and not the planet or the Roman god – there can be confusion there.
If you have ever heard of quicksilver, then you have in fact heard of mercury. The prior word is the historical term for it, as it was generally seen as a good, and even fascinating, metal. After all, it is one of the very few that has a natural liquid state versus a natural solid state.
What is Mercury, Anyway?
On the period table of elements, it is labeled “Hg” and is number eighty. Of course, that might not mean much to you if you are not a chemist. If you want some of the more scientific and technical details, you may want to check out this link to more information!
This chemical occurs naturally in the crust of the earth and in some coal deposits. Of note, it is shiny and silver looking, with some flecks of white at times. It is a liquid at room temperature, which is probably its most notable property. When we think of metals, we usually don’t think of liquids.
When a type of mercury known as “elemental” is exposed to the air, it often will evaporate. This makes it a toxic gas, which is obviously not good to inhale. It is used in thermometers, which is why it is so important to keep those safe and out of the hands of children.
The next variant of this metal is called inorganic. This is the kind that is most often found in the environment, though it is usually not found in “pure” form (meaning it is usually in a compound with another element). It can even create salts with several of the other chemicals on the periodic table.
What is interesting to note is that mercury chloride is used in a lot of beauty products, though its use is mostly discontinued in the health care field. It is one of the primary ingredients in things such as skin lightening creams or soaps. That is part of how those products work (and why the safety of them is sometimes called into question).
All of this might make you wonder why you need mercury analysis anyway, but the primary reason is that the toxic gases are dangerous to inhale. When it is released into the air, it has no odor and no color. Often, it can hide right under our noses.
How is it Released into the Air, Then?
I want to state this clearly. Mercury is considered a pollutant, no ifs, ands, or buts. It is a toxic and harmful chemical when it is released into the atmosphere by unnatural processes. While events such as volcanic eruptions do emit some into the air, it is not remotely comparable from the harmful emissions that come from human manufacturing.
If you want some fast facts on how is can impact the environment, you can look here: https://www.des.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt341/files/documents/2020-01/ard-28.pdf. It is a problem to be concerned about because the chemical methylmercury is absorbed by our bodies very quickly. It can go into the blood stream and the brain and have very dangerous effects.
If you have heard that some kinds of fish are dangerous to eat, this is largely due to the large amounts of mercury that have entered the atmosphere. It tends to deposit itself in a lot of different sources, including in freshwater fish. You should always be careful about eating fish you catch from fresh water sources that are brown colored.
Now, let me explain the main way that it is emitted into the environment. As you may expect, it is largely from the burning of fossil fuels. This is one of our current largest sources of energy. Unfortunately, we are finding that it has many negative impacts on our planet.
If you are concerned about high concentrations of mercury in your chemicals, you may want to invest in an analyzer. This is particularly true in the world of processing metals. Like I mentioned above, this liquid metal occurs naturally all throughout the planet. It combines with many other things such as sulfur or chlorine.
Mercury salts often end up in our laboratories without us even realizing. Unfortunately, it can sneak into many compounds. That is why it is best to understand what acceptable levels are, and when it can potentially get dangerous.
No one wants to get mercury poisoning. It is unpleasant at best and can even cause death at worse. Taking the necessary precautions is incredibly important and should never be an afterthought!