(Español) Mercury is a metal that is found in air, water, and soil. Mercury does not break down in the environment and is toxic to humans, building up in our bodies over long periods of time. Mercury exists naturally in several forms. The most common organic mercury compound is known technically as methylmercury. Methylmercury is of particular concern because it can build to very high levels in certain types of fish that people commonly eat. Mercury is also in certain cosmetics and household products, and is used in some religious practices.

What We Know About Mercury

Mercury is a compound that can harm children’s health even before birth. The developing fetus is extremely vulnerable to environmental pollutants as systems for clearing the body of toxins are in the process of being formed. Exposure to mercury can harm the healthy development of the brain and nervous system. Pregnant women exposed to mercury pass this toxin on to their developing infants. If levels are high enough, mercury can cause nervous system damage to babies. Mercury also gets transferred to babies through breast milk, although the benefits of breastfeeding are still thought to outweigh the drawbacks.

You can’t see, smell, or taste mercury, so it is important to know the main sources of mercury in order to avoid unnecessary exposure. Mercury typically gets into our body when we:

  • Breathe mercury vapors in the air

  • Eat certain fish with high mercury levels

  • Use skin products containing mercury

  • Touch mercury used in religious rituals

  • Touch mercury when household items containing mercury break (e.g. fever thermometer)

What You Can Do

There are several steps you can take to avoid mercury exposure.

Don’t Eat Fish High in Mercury

Fish that are low in mercury and safe to eat includes catfish, pollock, wild salmon and shrimp. Don’t eat fish from local waters that contain high levels of mercury. Before buying fish, ask where it came from. See fish that are safe to eat, and fish to avoid.

Don’t Use Cosmetics High in Mercury

Check the ingredients on labels and avoid products with the words “mercury” or “mercurio.” Cosmetics to avoid are:

  • Recetas de la Farmacia Normal

  • Miss Key Crema Blanqueadora

  • Santa Cream

  • Dermaline Skin Cream

  • Jabón Germicida

Don’t Use Azogue

Azogue, another name for mercury, is used in religious practices to ward off evil spirits and bring protection and good luck. However, it is very harmful to your health. Instead of azogue, many santeros and espiritistas use natural herbs and oils from original Caribbean traditions. Here are some safe alternatives:

  • For spiritual cleansing—rompe zaraguey

  • To remove evil influences from the home—pasote, agua de florida, or bomba santera

  • To calm nerves / improve digestion—agua de florida

Source: The John Snow Inc., Center for Environmental Health Studies

Don’t Touch Spilled Mercury

Even small mercury spills may need to be cleaned by trained professions. If you spill more than two tablespoons of mercury, call a health professional service or your local poison control center (in NYC: 212-764-7667).

To clean up a smaller mercury spill, such as from a broken thermometer, follow these ten steps:

  1. Open a window and run a fan to get vapors out of your home.

  2. Keep children away from the spill area.

  3. Remove any metal jewelry that you are wearing before cleaning up a spill. Mercury is a metal and may stick to your jewelry.

  4. Wear rubber gloves when cleaning up the spill.

  5. Carefully pick up any broken glass (from thermometers or light bulbs). Use sticky tape to help pick up small pieces. Put the glass in a plastic bag and tie up tight.

  6. Scoop up mercury drops with a stiff piece of paper. Sticky tape also helps to pick up small droplets. Put mercury in a plastic bag and tie up tightly.

  7. Shine a flashlight around the spill area to find smaller drops. Use a cloth rag to clean up.

  8. Throw away rags, paper, and tape used to clean up the mercury. Put all in a plastic bag and tie up tight.

  9. Use a heavy plastic trash bag to double-bag all bags of broken glass, mercury, and cleaning items. Tie the bag tightly.

  10. After cleaning, wash hands, and stay out of the room where mercury spilled for as long as possible. Keep the window open or a fan running.