When is the last time you heard of mercury? Was it your high school chemistry class? For most of us, mercury is some chemical substance that we have nothing to do with and it doesn't really affect our lives. Or does it…

Mercury is used today in a wide variety of products and processes. It is used (although with less and less frequency) in batteries, in thermometers, in fluorescent lights, in vaccines (although since 2003, primarily vaccines being used in Third World countries), in dental amalgam ("silver fillings"), and in the manufacture of chlorine and caustic soda. Until the late 1980's it was often used in paints, in the manufacture of glass, and in other products.

There are no other known chemicals which affect your brain as drastically Over the past twenty years, the effects of using mercury on such a wide scale has been raising more and more concerns. Mercury is the most potent neurotoxin known to man. Meaning, there are no other known chemicals which affect your brain as drastically. And worse, mercury doesn't break down in the body, or in the environment. It just keeps accumulating. This is why periodically we see government advisories warning us not to eat certain types of fish; when mercury builds up in a given water system, the fish living in those waters become toxic.

Mercury exists in nature only as part of an ore (a type of rock made up of bonded materials), usually cinnabar, gold, or silver, and is liquid at temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero. Its extreme sensitivity to heat is in large part why it is both so useful and so dangerous.

One of the earliest uses of mercury was in those good old-fashioned thermometers and barometers. The slightest change in temperature would cause the mercury to expand and fill up a longer line in the thermometer. By second grade, we'd all seen the "hold-the-thermometer-to-the-light-bulb-when-mom-leaves-the-room" experiment performed at least once, so we knew about this chemical property growing up.

Unfortunately, the fact that mercury expands, and eventually vaporizes so easily means that anyone who works around mercury is at high risk of breathing in mercury vapor. This includes people who work in manufacturing plants where mercury is used or produced as part of the manufacturing process. It also includes dentists and dental assistants, who are considered to be at high-risk of mercury poisoning.

There is growing evidence that people with large numbers of silver fillings are also at risk. It was once believed that mercury bonded so completely with the other metals used in dental amalgam that it would not escape from the filling. We now know this is not true, and in fact the amount of mercury vapor leaving fillings has been measured.

Multiple fillings can leak enough mercury into a person's system to cause mercury poisoning While in the average adult one or two fillings will not cause harm, having multiple fillings can leak enough mercury into a person's system to cause mercury poisoning. For women, there are special health concerns. Mercury crosses the placenta, and also passes into breast milk. And even trace amounts can cause birth defects. Mercury has been linked to regressive autism, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, developmental delays, and a variety of physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems. It has also been linked to intensified PMS. All of which means that for a woman, especially one in her child bearing years, or for a minor, silver fillings can be a serious health hazard.

Currently, the US Congress is even considering legislation that would restrict using silver fillings on minors and pregnant or lactating women. Several countries have already passed laws prohibiting silver fillings in such cases.

Today, there is a safe, affordable alternative called white composite fillings. Many dentists and patients prefer white fillings anyway for both cosmetic reasons and for durability. Because mercury expands (remember the light bulb experiment), amalgam fillings expand and often will eventually crack the tooth they are placed in. White fillings do not expand and thus over the long term will cause fewer problems. Still, they are something you need to specifically request and if you are hoping to have more children one day, or if you are currently expecting or nursing, you should probably look into this option.

If you or your child already have mercury fillings, and you suspect mercury poisoning or would simply like to avoid any build up of mercury in the body, you can have mercury fillings removed and replaced with white composite fillings. However, in some states this is possible only if you can show a sensitivity to mercury. In any case, the safe removal of amalgam fillings is a specialty not all dentists are familiar with. Simply drilling them out will send a mega dose of mercury straight into your blood. To avoid this, you need to do your research and find a dentist who knows how to take them out without leaking mercury into your body.

Other sources of mercury are somewhat harder to avoid. For example, while some fish are generally believed to be safer choices - salmon, for example, tends to pass mercury through its system rather than storing it - the amount of mercury in the world's water systems changes with industrial and domestic waste water constantly adding. Its wise to stay informed of FDA advisories, or buy from sources that are known to be safe (in some areas you may be able to buy from fish farms).

You can also protect yourself and your family from the ill affects of mercury by boosting your immune system and nutritional intake. Any nutritional imbalance or impairment of the immune system can potentially cause your body to have a toxic reaction even to trace amounts of mercury.

There are steps we can take to protect ourselves and our families Mercury is gradually being faded out of most industries, but it will likely remain a worry for some time to come. Clean-up of waterways is slow and expensive, and more mercury continues to enter the water systems from the soil and air. But there are steps we can take to protect ourselves and our families from taking it all in.

For easy reference, listed below some of the common causes and concerns of mercury in the body.

Mercury and your Children's Health:

  • Mercury causes damage to the brain, kidneys, and other organs
  • Mercury is linked to autism, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, developmental delays, impaired vision, emotional and behavioral problems, and other wellness issues
  • Mercury crosses the placenta and is also passed into breast milk
  • One out of twelve women of reproductive age have higher levels of mercury in their blood than the EPA guidelines state is safe
  • More than 325,000 babies born each year are affected by mercury poisoning

Mercury and Your Diet:

New studies show that eating 2-3 servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Yet, mercury pollution has made fish consumption potentially risky.

  • Women who ate 3-4 servings of fish within a 30 day period had mercury at 4 times the level of women who ate no fish during that period, according to a study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association
  • Non-kosher fish such as shark and seafood, as well as tuna, contain the highest levels of mercury
  • Among kosher fish, tuna is the most contaminated
  • Best options (lowest mercury levels): haddock, salmon, cod, and sole