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From the Fall 2012 Conservationist for Kids

What is Mercury

By Gina Jack

Mercury is a metal which is a silvery, odorless liquid when it's at room temperature in its pure state (elemental mercury). In this form, it is sometimes called "quicksilver." At room temperature-and especially when heated-it evaporates, becoming a vapor which spreads easily in the atmosphere.

Mercury conducts electricity, combines easily with other metals and expands and contracts uniformly when temperatures change. It has been used in many products we use every day that require these properties, for example, light bulbs, light switches, dental fillings, thermometers and more. It's even used in the small "button" batteries of some toys, light-up shoes, clothing and accessories.

  • Mercury occurs naturally in the Earth. The main ore for mercury is the mineral cinnabar
  • While mercury is useful, it can also be very dangerous-even deadly-if it's not handled properly

Mercury is poisonous to people and wildlife; it damages nerve tissue in the body. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include changes in behavior, skin rash, muscle problems and more. High levels of mercury can cause developmental problems in young children.

Mercury can be released into the air when we burn coal or garbage. From there, it can land in lakes and rivers. Wildlife is exposed to mercury when it's in their habitat, especially in the plants and animals they eat.

People are exposed to mercury when they breathe in the fumes, when they have direct skin contact with it, or when they eat fish that came from waters with high amounts of mercury.