The Truth About Mercury

mercury batteryAt IKEA a few weeks ago, I picked up a few things. Candles, a few Beskuren, some replacement Ivrig—you know, the usual essentials. And AA batteries, better known as Aklalisk in IKEAland. When I got those home, I took a closer look at the label where, to my surprise, I found that it listed “0% Mercury.” Do most other batteries contain mercury—and if so, what else? I decided to find out. 

Because mercury can build up in your body, it’s important to understand how to minimize your exposure to things that contain it. Here’s what you need to know!

First of all, I didn’t realize the minute levels at which mercury can cause serious neurological and behavioral disorders. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one small drop of mercury in a 25-acre lake would make every fish in it unsafe to eat! And mercury is especially toxic to developing babies. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and central nervous system, according to the National Institutes of Health.

I found an amazing resource in The Mercury Project, a non-profit that’s focused on reducing toxic mercury exposures by empowering consumers and influencing policy. I just started working with The Mercury Project, and am so honored to be a part of their mission.

At The Mercury Project, I learned that because mercury can build up in your body, it’s important to understand how to minimize your exposure to things that contain it. This is especially important for pregnant women and those thinking about getting pregnant.

In general, here’s what you need to know about:

Mercury and Fish

Most people are exposed to mercury by eating fish and shellfish. While most fish today do contain mercury, some levels are very low. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, where you can find up-to-date information on safer seafood, like wild-caught salmon and sardines, and learn how to avoid high-mercury fish like tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.

Mercury and Fillings

Did you know that amalgam fillings—those “silver” blobs on most people’s molars—are actually 45-55% mercury? I didn’t, either, and I have them. The World Health Organization found that people who have them are exposed to “mercury levels significantly exceeding those set for food and air.” Removing amalgam fillings can significantly reduce the level of mercury in your body, but the drilling can expose patients to higher levels of mercury during the process. If you’ve got cavities, request composite resin or glass ionomer cement fillings to reduce your mercury exposure.

Mercury and Vaccines

Introduced in the 1930s, thimerosal—which is 50% organic mercury that metabolizes to become ethylmercury, according to the FDA—increased in use as pharmaceutical companies developed multi-dose vials. By 1992, mercury exposures from childhood vaccinations had eclipsed the level associated with “early neurological effects” by the National Academy of Sciences—to 187.5 micrograms at six months (twice the NAS standard) and 237.5 by two years (three times the NAS standard). In 1999, the FDA determined that the cumulative effects of mercury exposure through vaccines could have exceeded the EPA’s recommended guidelines for safety, and thimerosal began to be phased out from most vaccines.

Today, most manufacturers use different preservatives or deliver vaccines in single doses that are preservative free. However, there are still some vaccines—such as most multi-dose flu vaccines—that include thimerosal. Even “preservative-free” vaccines can contain trace amounts of thimerosal—as much as one microgram of mercury, according to the FDA. If you’re planning on vaccinating, request a “thimerosal-free” vaccine to reduce your mercury exposure.

Mercury and Cosmetics

Many skin-lightening creams—especially those manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the U.S.—contain mercury, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration. Read your labels and if you see “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” mercuric,” “mercurio” or “mercury” discontinue use immediately and dispose of the product as toxic waste.

Mercury and Products

Which brings us back to the batteries—as well as thermometers and fluorescent lightbulbs. Most of these products contain mercury, and should also be disposed of as toxic waste so they can be properly recycled. But if you break a thermometer or fluorescent lightbulb, don’t panic! Try not to vacuum the mercury, as it can become airborne and is more dangerous when inhaled. Instead, slide the mercury beads into a sealed plastic bag before you drop it off.

Mercury and Me

As I spend more time with The Mercury Project, I won’t be posting regularly on Mommy Greenest. Hopefully there’s enough information here already to answer most of your questions about healthier living with less judgement. If not, feel free to drop me a line by clicking any of the buttons in the sidebar, and I’ll answer your question as soon as I can. Thank you!


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