chemical element

What Is Mercury?

Mercury is the only metallic element that is exists as a liquid in its natural form given standard pressure and temperature. Mercury has an atomic number of 80 and has the chemical symbol Hg, as it was formerly named hydrargyrum. Elemental mercury can be found in the environment but most naturally occurring mercury is found as mercury compounds, namely organic compounds like methylmercury. These compounds are commonly found in the Earth’s crust and in coal deposits.

Mercury can also exist as inorganic salt compounds that are typically white in color with the exception of mercuric sulfide, which is red. Mercuric sulfide, otherwise known as cinnabar, is one of the most common mercury compounds found in deposits located within the planet’s crust. Most use of inorganic mercury compounds and salts have been discontinued due to their toxicity. At room temperature elemental mercury can evaporate into a colorless and odorless gas that is highly toxic.

Mercury is quite rare in the Earth’s crust, but because the element does not geochemically blend with other mineral elements the deposits of mercury are highly concentrated. Mercury mines in several countries, including Mexico, the United States, and Italy have been completely depleted. These mines at one point produced much of the world’s supply of mercury.

What Is Mercury Used For?

Mercury has many practical applications, though many products that once contained mercury have switched to other materials to reduce the risk of contamination. Mercury is perhaps best known as the liquid used inside thermometers, though this product has been slowly phased out in the United States. Nearly half of the states have banned mercury medical thermometers outright, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced they will no longer perform the initial calibration of mercury thermometers, effectively killing them for commercial use.

In its vapor form Mercury is used within fluorescent lamps, street lights, and signs used for advertisements. Because mercury can easily form alloys with other metals it is used extensively in mining, specifically for silver, gold, zinc, and cadmium. Mercury is present in certain types of batteries, which is why you should dispose of batteries following the suggested guidelines on the packaging.

A mercury compound is used as a primer in firearm cartridges, as it is naturally explosive. Mercury also is used in a variety of laboratory environments where its use is constantly monitored. Mercury had many other uses historically as it was believed to have healing or restorative capabilities. For example, the ancient Romans and Egyptians made extensive use of mercury for cosmetics.

How Does Mercury Get Into Water?

Mercury can easily work its way into the environment when it is emitted as a vapor. Several processes can create mercury emissions. Volcanoes and forest fires naturally release mercury vapors into the atmosphere. However, most mercury emissions originate from manmade activities. The burning of coal, wood, and oil releases a substantial amount of mercury vapor into the air. Certain mining practices also generate poisonous mercury vapor.

Once mercury pollution is released into the air the vapors will fall down to Earth as rain or simply due to gravity, a process known as air disposition. The mercury vapor can fall into fresh water bodies or fall on land where it can then be washed into waterways over time. Through this multi-step process mercury can find its way into many water supplies. This is why consuming too much fish can cause health problems - because mercury is present in most bodies of water seafood contains a significant amount of mercury.

Mercury spreads fairly evenly throughout geographical areas. However, living near a mineral deposit can increase the likelihood of high levels of mercury in your drinking water. Living near a mine, power plant, or industrial site where coal is burned is also a red flag that mercury can find its way into your water supply.

Health Effects of Mercury in Drinking Water

All forms of mercury are extremely toxic and must be handled with great care. Specific protocol exists to clean a mercury spill in an industrial context or when a product like a thermometer containing mercury breaks or leaks. Because mercury is inherently poisonous the federal government has passed many restrictions on its use in commercial products. In addition, many corporations have substituted a more costly Galinstan alloy to replace the mercury in their products.

In the past many civilizations used mercury not knowing it was gravely affecting their health. In China the element was believed to promote better health and prolong life. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, died by consuming a mixture of mercury and jade. This concoction was created by scientists within his court who believed they were granting their emperor eternal life.

The emperor died of liver failure, brain failure, and mercury poisoning. Ingesting even a small amount of mercury can have lifelong consequences, and chronic or concentrated exposure will lead to death.

According the Environmental Protection Agency mercury is a neurotoxin with several severe health effects. General health problems associated with moderate methylmercury exposure include:

Loss of vision

Muscle weakness

Lack of coordination

Speech, hearing, and movement impairment

The feeling of “pins and needles” in your limbs

Many people can consume methylmercury in their drinking water or by consuming fish and shellfish that were exposed to high levels of mercury. If a mother consumes this type of mercury while pregnant the toxicity of her blood can severely harm her unborn child in the womb. Children exposed to mercury in the womb can suffer developmental handicaps in relation to their:


Motor skills

Spatial skills


Cognitive abilities

Inorganic mercury can find its way into your drinking water. Consuming water with inorganic mercury compounds can cause the following problems:


Skin rashes

Mood swings

Muscle weakness

Memory loss

Kidney damage when chronically exposed

Though less common, absorbing elemental mercury as a vapor can cause these serious health effects:



Neuromuscular problems

Nerve damage

Mental impairment

Mood swings and irritability

Acute exposure to mercury can cause respiratory failure, organ failure, and death.

How to Test Your Water for Mercury

If you are concerned about the possibility of mercury in your drinking water there are many options for testing. You can contact your city or county health department to request a free test be conducted of your drinking water. If these services are not available in your area do not worry: Pelican Water carries various types of testing kits based on your budget and needs.

In order to check for mercury we recommend the WaterCheck 32 Test. This is the most affordable water test that will measure the amount of mercury in your drinking water, along with other worrisome contaminants including arsenic, lead, and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS).

Once your water test arrives, follow these instructions:

  1. Carefully read the packaging to guarantee a valid sample.
  2. Follow the instructions provided to gather a water sample for testing.
  3. Using FedEx or UPS Overnight Saver, return your kit with the sample to the testing laboratory location indicated in the instructions. Note: return shipping is not included.
  4. The lab will process the results of your water test within 7 to 10 days of receiving your kit.
  5. Read your results once they have been mailed back to you.

After reading your water quality analysis report it’s best to contact the lab that conducted the testing if you have any questions. If you are still having trouble determining whether there is a dangerous level of mercury in your drinking water contact Pelican Water directly.

Test your water for manganese today - buy a water test kit from Pelican Water.


How to Reduce Mercury in Drinking Water

The maximum contaminant level (MCL) set by the EPA for mercury is 0.002 milligrams per liter. This level is extremely low, as mercury is a known poisonous element. The EPA set a very low MCL due to mercury’s known effects of developing fetuses and its ability to damage the kidneys and other organs. As such, if your water tests positive for mercury you should treat your drinking water right away.

According to the Water Quality Association distillation and reverse osmosis are the two recommended methods for effectively reducing mercury in your drinking water. Luckily, many effective point-of-use (POU) systems exist that can help you treat your drinking water and neutralize the threat of mercury contamination.

Best Water Filters for Mercury

After testing your water for mercury you may find that the concentration indicated on your water quality analysis report exceeds the MCL recommended by the EPA (0.002 mg/L). In this situation, install a water filtration system to protect your family from the potential negative health effects of mercury:

Countertop Drinking Filter System - For families on a modest budget the Pelican Water Countertop Drinking Filter System is an effective and economical choice. This water filter system reduces more than 60 contaminants including mercury. The system is NSF-certified and filters mercury at a rate of nearly 97%, resulting in healthier, great-tasting water for your whole family.

Many municipalities recommend homeowners use reverse osmosis systems to treat mercury contamination due to their reliability and thorough filtration. Check your water today for high levels of mercury, especially if you live near a site that burns coal, oil, or wood to generate energy. If you have any questions about our products or about protecting your family from the harmful effects of mercury contact a Pelican Water specialist today.

Disclaimer: The information on this website has not been reviewed by the FDA. Products offered for sale herein are not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease or health condition. No medical claims are being made or implied. Contaminants mentioned are not necessarily in your water.