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Mercury Poisoning:
The Hidden Danger in Your Home

Dan Fagin / Family Circle Magazine Mar02

At first the doctors didn't think anything was seriously wrong with Maya Bailey. But her parents, Chris and Virginia Bailey, soon knew otherwise. They watched helplessly as their once-vivacious toddler became a listless 18-month-old who stumbled and fell out of her chair. Maya could sleep only for an hour or two before waking up sweat soaked and screaming. Her hands and feet turned bright red. Then the red splotches on her hands became deep sores, which also spread to her mouth. Her teeth started to fall out, as did her fingernails.

Worst of all, breathing became excruciatingly painful, especially at night. Still, all four pediatricians the Baileys consulted were stumped. What was making Maya so sick?

Her body was failing at a terrifyingly fast rate by the time she was admitted to the hospital, three months after her parents first noticed her strange symptoms. By then her lungs were so weak she could breathe only with the help of a ventilator. In desperation her doctors put her in a drug-induced coma to keep her perfectly still. Butthey remained baffled about her mysterious illness.

Then Maya's luck changed: William Banner, M.D., Ph.D., walked into her hospital room. Dr. Banner had received advanced training in toxicology, pediatrics and critical care. He looked at Maya's red hands and feet, felt her wobbly teeth (she had already lost 10) and studied her labored breathing. Then he made a diagnosis:

mercury poisoning. Tests later confirmed that her body contained 15 times more mercury than normal, easily enough to kill her in a few more days without the proper treatment.

"It's a miracle that Maya is still with us," says her father, Chris. "When Dr. Banner came in and told us it was mercury, we were shocked."

They probably shouldn't have been—and neither should we. Those silvery globules that you may have once played with in science class are being recognized as a significant health risk. And there is a growing consensus that even moderate doses of mercury—the kind you can get from regularly eating several meals of tuna every week, or from breathing in vapors from a broken thermometer—can damage the brain at its most delicate stages of development.

"The fetal brain is so sensitive, even low-level exposures can have an effect," says Joseph Jacobson, Ph.D, coauthor of mercury hazards report released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in July 2000.

An astonishing number of children are at risk. Over 60,000 babies every year in the U.S. are exposed to unsafe levels of mercury while inside the womb, according to estimates in the NAS report. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, says as many as three million American children have elevated mercury levels in their blood. And about seven million women and children regularly eat fish that is tainted with unsafe levels of the toxic metal.

Mercury is in our air, water and food, the result of pollution from incinerators, power plants and other industries. Airborne pollution is what matters the most, experts agree, because of what happens after it falls back to earth and enters rivers, lakes and oceans-and the fish that live in them.

When mercury particles reach the marine environment, they're converted into methylmercury, a highly toxic compound and the reason why state health officials have warned against eating excessive amounts of fish from more than 52,000 lakes and 238,000 miles of rivers in 40 states. In January 2001 the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration took the unprecedented step of issuing nationwide guidelines cautioning pregnant women and young children to limit how much fish they eat, and to avoid some species entirely. Even canned tuna is a worry.

Citing these new guidelines, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, recommends that a 44-pound child eat no more than one tuna fish sandwich per week. A 132-pound pregnant woman should eat only one 6-ounce can of white tuna or two cans of light tuna per week. Even so, mercury is a tough habit to break. Not only is it in thermostats, blood-pressure gauges and thermometers, but also fluorescent light bulbs, many types of batteries, and light switches.

Mercury is also in many "silver" dental fillings, which in most cases are actually amalgams, or mixtures, of mercury, silver, copper and tin. (Mercury's use in fillings is controversial, but is still viewed as safe by most dentists and by the federal government.) Finally, it is a major ingredient of thimerosal, a compound widely used as a preservative and antiseptic.

Thimerosal still shows up at trace levels in some contact lens solutions, eyedrops, nasal sprays, even childhood and flu vaccines, though the FDA is phasing out many of its uses.

Today, poisoning incidents such as Maya Bailey's are rare, but they still happen. Children unfortunate enough to be exposed to high doses prenatally can suffer blindness, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, seizures and other birth defects, since mercury in the mother's body passes readily to the fetus and can also pass to a nursing infant through breast milk. In the severest cases, symptoms can resemble autism, prompting some researchers to advance the unproven theory that mercury poisoning may be a cause of autism.

Methylmercury is especially harmful if ingested because it's absorbed in the bloodstream. As with lead, three of the most prominent low level effects are learning disabilities, poor motor skills and shortened attention span.

The NAS report notes a string of recent studies provides strong scientific evidence that even relatively modest doses of methylmercury can trigger neurological problems in children.

Although broken thermometers aren't the biggest source of contamination, they are a highly visible symbol of the mercury problem. Registered nurse Charlotte Brody is the coordinator of Health Care Without Harm, a nationwide coalition of more than 300 health and environmental groups that has led an anti-mercury campaign. Brody's coalition has signed up 11 of the nation's 15 largest pharmacy chains-including Walgreen, CVS, Wal-Mart and Rite Aid-to stop selling mercury thermometers. And more than 700 hospitals and health care systems have also agreed to phase them out. In July 2001 the American Academy of Pediatrics called on doctors and parents to stop using them, too. Some states and cities have also begun ban or restrict their sale. But bans don't eliminate the risk posed by the millions of older thermometers still in medicine cabinets, so activists have begun arranging for thermometer exchanges. Some have been massive: The state of Vermont ran its $120,000 "Catch the Fever" program for two weeks in February 2001and collected 45,000 mercury thermometers.

The amount of mercury in a typical thermometer is more than enough to harm a child who inhales it; plus it's enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake. Even if thermometers don't break, many wind up in landfills or incinerators and become an environmental hazard. The 3.8 tons per year being kept out of the environment by curbing the sale of mercury thermometers is thus an impressive achievement.

Yet these amounts are dwarfed by the total amount of mercury released into the air and water by industry. Coalfired power plants alone release 51 tons of mercury annually, about a third of the yearly total for U.S. airborne emissions. There's at least twice as much mercury-and possibly five times as much-in the atmosphere now as there was 150 years ago.

"If we really want to address this, we're going to have to recognize that it's not about taking tuna sandwiches out of the mouths of children," says Thomas Burke, co-director of the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It's about eliminating these major pollution sources."

Reduce Your Family's Exposure:

Don't feed your children shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. Avoid these if you're breastfeeding, pregnant or may soon become pregnant. Limit your fish consumption, including tuna, to 12 ounces per week for store-bought and 6 ounces that caught by family or friends (two ounces for young children). Consult the FDA and EPA guidelines at www.fda.gov and www.epa.gov.

Always follow fish-consumption advisories issued by your local health department. For the national listing, check http://fish.rti.org/

Cooking fish does not reduce mercury concentrations, it actually makes it higher.

Choose alternatives to mercury thermometers such as digital or flexible forehead thermometers.

Never throw any product containing mercury into the trash. Contact your local health department about household hazardous waste collection facilities.

Look for a recycling program that will reuse fluorescent bulbs instead of throwing them away-they contain mercury in the powder inside the glass;

Never use a vacuum or a broom to clean up spilled mercury.

After a spill, turn up the air conditioner and ventilate the room for at least two days. If the spill is on a hard surface, use gloves and stiff paper to push beads together. Then use an eyedropper to suction and place them in a container. Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining beads and place tape, eyedropper, stiff paper and gloves in plastic bag. If spill is on a carpet, cut out the contaminated section and seal in a plastic bag.

If spill is on a carpet, cut out the contaminated section and seal in a plastic bag. For more cleanup information, check out:

http://www.epa.gov/oerrpage/superfund/tools/merc/index.htm and

http://www.state.in.us/idem/ctap/mercury/spill.pdf

To organize a mercury thermometer exchange program in your community, click on

http://www.noharm.org/library/docs/How_to_Plan_and_Hold_a_Mercury_Thermometer__3.pdf

To find out where to turn in your mercury thermometer and other household hazardous waste, call your state pollution control agency or your local health department located in the government listings in your phone book. Or click on

http://www.epa.gov/grtlakes/seahome/housewaste/src/statemap.htm or

www.earth911.org or

http://www.epa.gov/region01/steward/neeat/mercury/disposal.html

source: http://www.familycircle.com/issue/issue2.jsp 11feb02

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