Mercury poisoning's effects partially depend on whether it has been caused by exposure to elemental mercury, inorganic mercury compounds (as salts), or organomercury compounds.Elemental mercury
Quicksilver (liquid metallic mercury) is poorly absorbed by ingestion and skin contact. It is hazardous due to its potential to release mercury vapour.
Animal data indicate that less than 0.01% of ingested mercury is absorbed through the intact gastrointestinal tract; though it may not be true for individuals suffering from ileus. Cases of systemic toxicity from accidental swallowing are rare, and attempted suicide via intravenous injection does not appear to result in systemic toxicity. Though not studied quantitatively, the physical properties of liquid elemental mercury limit its absorption through intact skin and in light of its very low absorption rate from the gastrointestinal tract, skin absorption would not be high
. Some mercury vapour is absorbed dermally but uptake by this route is only approximately 1% of that by inhalation.
In humans, approximately 80% of inhaled mercury vapour is absorbed via the respiratory tract where it enters the circulatory system and is distributed throughout the body. Chronic exposure by inhalation, even at low concentrations in the range 0.7–42 μg/m3, has been shown in case control studies to cause effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills, and sleep disturbance
in workers.Inorganic mercury compounds
Mercury occurs inorganically as salts such as mercury(II) chloride. Mercury salts primarily affect the gastro-intestinal tract and the kidneys
, and can cause severe kidney damage; however, as they can not cross the blood-brain barrier easily, mercury salts inflict little neurological damage without continuous or heavy exposure.
As two oxidation states of mercury form salts (Hg+ and Hg2+), mercury salts occur in both mercury(I) (or mercurous) and mercury(II) (mercuric) forms. Mercury(II) salts are usually more toxic than their mercury(I) counterparts because their solubility in water is greater; thus, they are more readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract.Organic mercury compounds
Compounds of mercury tend to be much more toxic than the element itself, and organic compounds of mercury are often extremely toxic and have been implicated in causing brain and liver damage. The most dangerous mercury compound, dimethylmercury, is so toxic that even a few microliters spilled on the skin, or even a latex glove, can cause death.
Methylmercury is the major source of organic mercury for all individuals. It works its way up the food chain through bioaccumulation in the environment, reaching high concentrations among populations of some species. Larger species of fish, such as tuna or swordfish, are usually of greater concern than smaller species. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise women of child-bearing age, nursing mothers, and young children to completely avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish (golden bass), to limit consumption of albacore ("white") tuna to no more than 6 oz (170 g) per week, and of all other fish and shellfish to no more than 12 oz (340 g) per week. A 2006 review of the risks and benefits of fish consumption found that for adults the benefits of one to two servings of fish per week outweigh the risks, even (except for a few fish species) for women of childbearing age, and that avoidance of fish consumption could result in significant excess coronary heart disease deaths and suboptimal neural development in children.
Ethylmercury is a breakdown product of the antibacteriological agent ethylmercurithiosalicylate, which has been used as a topical antiseptic and a vaccine preservative (further discussed under Thiomersal below). Its characteristics have not been studied as extensively as methylmercury. It is cleared from the blood much more rapidly, with a half-life of 7 to 10 days, and it is metabolized much more quickly than methylmercury. It probably does not have methylmercury's ability to cross the blood-brain barrier via a transporter, but instead relies on simple diffusion to enter the brain.
Other exposure sources of organic mercury include phenylmercuric acetate and phenylmercuric nitrate. These were used in indoor latex paints for their anti-mildew properties, but were removed in 1990 because of cases of toxicity.