Mercury poisoning occurs when too much of the element mercury is ingested, often via contaminated fish or some chemicals. Mercury poisoning can result in brain damage and lung damage. Some types can enter the blood stream and be absorbed by the organs. It can be found naturally in the air, water and soil.
Mercury can take one of three forms: Elemental, like the liquid mercury found in old-style thermometers and dental fillings; Inorganic, which is in some industrial chemicals and disinfectants; and Organic, or methylmercury, which is produced from burning coal and which is ingested by some types of fish.
Methylmercury can bio-accumulate, or collect in the body. Over time, this builds up into enough mercury to cause physical symptoms. Methylmercury can also be dangerous to developing babies, as it can cause cognitive problems and abnormal neurological development.
Signs of elemental mercury ingestion may include vomiting, having a metallic taste in your mouth, coughing, shortness of breath and swollen or bleeding gums. Inorganic mercury exposure can result in burning in the throat, vomiting and bloody diarrhea.
You usually encounter organic mercury in small amounts, but long-term exposure can result in numbness or pain, trouble walking, double vision or blindness, seizures, and death.
First, remove the patient from any sources of mercury exposure. Then, medical professionals can remove as much of the mercury as possible. If, for example, a battery was swallowed, it can be removed surgically. Other types of mercury can be treated with activated charcoal to bind and remove it from the body. Severe cases may require respiratory assistance, blood filtering and flushing of the stomach and intestinal tract to remove as much of the chemical as possible.
Organic forms of mercury that build up over time may not be as urgent, but can also be treated with agents to absorb and remove the chemical.