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What exactly is mercury & Where we get it from

March 21, 2017

What is mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal found throughout the environment (soil, fossil fuels, minerals). We can absorb mercury via inhalation, through our skin and when we eat.

Mercury comes in 3 forms:

  • elemental (e.g., in thermometers, tooth fillings)
  • inorganic (e.g., batteries, disinfectants)
  • organic (e.g., methyl-mercury in fish, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, some vaccines)

Where we get mercury

Mercury can be introduced into the food supply in a variety of ways, most commonly as a byproduct of pollution. Burning fossil fuels and mining (mercury is used to extract gold) emit inorganic mercury vapor into the atmosphere.  This mercury floats around and eventually settles into waterways, where it’s organified to methyl-mercury by microorganisms.

The mercury cycle: How mercury enters the food chain

Mercury exposure is the second most common toxic metal poisoning in North America. The greatest risk comes from the mercury we consume in our diet (methyl-mercury).

The most common dietary source of toxic methyl-mercury is seafood. But it can also come from:

  • Livestock who are fed contaminated fishmeal
  • Plants grown in mercury-contaminated soil
  • Foods stored in pottery with mercury-based paint
  • Duck eggs
  • Chemicals used on food crops (e.g., pesticides)
  • Protein powder
  • Fish oil (check with the company to make sure they test for toxins).
Worldwide, China is the largest source of human related mercury pollution (mainly from coal/metal). And in the 1970s a methyl-mercury based fungicide was used to treat grains in Iraq — this caused 450 deaths and 5000 illnesses.

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