If you’re exposed to mercury in high enough doses, you can get mercury poisoning. Mercury poisoning is characterized by lack of coordination, sensory impairment, and disturbed physical feelings.
Mercury poisoning does not occur often because of the volume of mercury one must be exposed to in order to succumb to mercury poisoning. More common health risks from mercury exposure or ingestion are skin rashes, mood swings, memory impairment, and muscle weakness. The most extreme cases of mercury exposure can result in adverse effects on the kidney and respiratory system, ultimately resulting in death.
What makes mercury particularly dangerous to humans is its natural affinity with molecules that are essential to many of our bodies’ metabolic functions, particularly those that contain sulfur and a sulfur-hydrogen combination (thiols). Since sulfur is present in every protein in the body, mercury has access metabolic pathways from anywhere in the body. By binding with sulfur-containing molecules in cells, mercury changes the structure of the molecule, thus making it incapable of performing its usual function. When metabolic pathways are disrupted, cells cease to function properly, and this can cause the shut down of an entire system. Mercury can also negatively impact our ability to absorb nutrients, cellular growth and reproduction, and our immune system.
Another factor that makes mercury exceptionally dangerous is its ability to persist in our bodies for a very long time, which means otherwise negligible amounts can accumulate over many years and continue to cause damage.
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