Mercury, a toxic heavy metal, has been a subject of concern due to its adverse impact on both the environmental and human health.
WHO considers mercury one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern. This article explores the major sources of mercury contamination in drinking water and its potential consequences on human health.
Historical and Industrial Uses of Mercury
Mercury has a long history of human use, with its applications evolving. Naturally occurring mercury was widely distributed through volcanic activity. However, its use dramatically increased during the 19th-century industrial revolution.
Some of the key applications of mercury in the industrial sector include its use in the production of chlorine and caustic soda, electrical appliances, industrial and control instruments, laboratory apparatus, and as a raw material for various mercury compounds. These compounds have been used as fungicides, antiseptics, preservatives, pharmaceuticals, electrodes, and reagents. Notably, mercury was also widely employed in dental amalgams.
Environmental Levels and Human Exposure
human-caused sources of mercury in the atmosphere are largely from combustion of materials that contain mercury, with coal-combustion (electric utility boilers and commercial/industrial boilers) being the largest source in the U.S., according to the 1997 EPA Report to Congress.
Mercury levels in the air typically range from 2 to 10 ng/m3. Mercury can enter the body through respiration or when mercury vapors are released into the air during industrial processes or spills.
Mercury levels in rainwater range from 5 to 100 ng/litre, with occasional reports of concentrations as low as 1 ng/litre.
However, localized mineral deposits can lead to higher mercury concentrations in groundwater. In some cases, groundwater levels exceed environmental agencies' maximum contaminant levels. Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) are set by regulatory agencies like the NJDEP and USEPA to ensure safe drinking water. The MCL for mercury in public water supplies is 2 parts per billion (2 ppb).
Food, particularly fish and fish products, is the primary source of mercury exposure for non-occupationally exposed populations. The average daily intake of mercury from food varies but ranges from 2 to 20 µg.
- Waters of the eastern United States with a high density of forest and wetlands in the stream basin—particularly the southeastern coastal plain—have among the highest levels of methylmercury in fish.
People are mainly exposed to methylmercury, an organic compound, when they eat fish and shellfish that contain the compound.
Possible symptoms of methylmercury poisoning include:
- Loss of peripheral vision;
- "Pins and needles" feelings, usually in the hands, feet, and around the mouth;
- Lack of coordination of movements;
- Impairment of speech, hearing, walking; and/or
- Muscle weakness.
- Children exposed to methylmercury while in the womb can have impacts on their cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills, and visual-spatial skills.
Health effects of Mercury:
The health effects of mercury exposure depend on the form and concentration of mercury and can range from neurological and kidney damage to developmental issues in children.
Acute mercury exposure can cause severe health effects, including neurological and renal disturbances.
Acute intoxication symptoms include pharyngitis, dysphagia, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and shock.
In severe cases, it can result in swelling of the salivary glands, stomatitis, loosening of teeth, nephritis, anuria, and hepatitis.
Long-term mercury exposure can result in various neurological and physiological symptoms, even at low exposure levels.
Studies involving individuals with occupational exposure have indicated that exposure to mercury concentrations above 0.1 mg/m3 can lead to symptoms such as objective tremors, mental disturbances, and gingivitis.
Mild, subclinical signs of central nervous system toxicity can be seen in workers exposed to an elemental mercury level in the air of 20 μg/m3 or more for several years.
Methods for treating mercury contamination
Boiling water is not recommended as it releases mercury into the air.
Promote Clean Energy Sources: Transitioning to clean energy sources that do not involve burning coal can significantly reduce mercury emissions. Renewable energy, such as solar, wind, and hydropower, reduces mercury release from coal-fired power plants and industrial processes.
Phase Out Non-essential Mercury-containing Products: Many products, such as batteries, thermometers, electric switches, dental amalgams, and cosmetics, are made of mercury. Efforts should be made to phase out non-essential mercury-based products. In healthcare, alternatives to mercury-containing medical devices should be adopted, and public awareness should be raised.
Various water treatment methods, such as distillation, reverse osmosis, and filtration through granulated activated carbon (GAC), can remove mercury from drinking water.
Chemical Precipitation: Chemical additives can precipitate mercury ions, which can then be removed through sedimentation or filtration. Common chemicals used include sulfides and hydroxides.
Activated Carbon Filtration: Granular activated carbon (GAC) filters remove organic and inorganic mercury compounds. The activated carbon adsorbs mercury ions from water.
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Reverse Osmosis: Reverse osmosis systems use a semi-permeable membrane to remove a wide range of contaminants, including mercury. It can effectively remove both inorganic and organic mercury compounds.
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Call to Action
In conclusion, addressing mercury presence in drinking water is crucial for individuals and communities. Mercury exposure can lead to severe health issues, especially in vulnerable populations such as young children and developing fetuses. It is essential to take proactive measures to reduce mercury contamination in your Family’s drinking water sources.
Take action today to ensure you and your loved ones have access to clean, safe, and healthy drinking water. Visit Life Sciences Water now and make a positive change for your health and the environment.
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