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Mercury
From Volume 33, Issue 4 - April 2010

What it is: Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is a chemical element that occurs in natural deposits, mostly as cinnabar (mercuric sulfide). In its metallic form, mercury is an odorless silver liquid. When heated, it becomes a colorless gas. Soluble forms of mercury include mercuric chloride and methylmercury. Mercury is used in electrical products, such as dry-cell batteries and fluorescent light bulbs, and in scientific instruments, like thermometers and barometers. It was well known in the ancient world and was thought to have curative properties in China and Tibet. Occurrence: Metallic mercury and inorganic mercury compounds are released into the air by mining ore deposits, burning coal and waste and from manufacturing plants. Mercury enters the water or soil from erosion of natural deposits, runoff from landfills, discharge from refineries/factories and volcanic activity. Methylmercury is produced by microbes in soil and water. It is found in the tissues of almost all fish and shellfish, but predatory fish, such as tuna, tend to have higher levels. Health effects: Inhalation of metallic mercury vapor, dermal application of medicinal products containing inorganic mercurous salts and ingestion of seafood contaminated with methylmercury have been known to cause neurological and behavioral disorders, such as: Hand tremors, irritability, shyness, changes in vision or hearing and memory problems. Short-term exposure to mercury may cause lung damage, nausea, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes and eye irritation. Children of mothers who have been exposed to mercury have exhibited delays in motor and verbal development as well as severe brain damage. Mercury also has negative effects on the liver, immune system and reproductive organs. Regulation: Mercury is third on the CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances, ranking below only arsenic and lead. EPA set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for mercury at 2 ppb. The FDA maximum permissible level (MPL) of methylmercury in seafood is 1 ppm. Water treatment: Both inorganic and organic mercury can be reduced in water with distillation, reverse osmosis and ion exchange. The activated carbon, specialty media adsorption and filtration products, such as solid block and adsorption filter, are also effective. EPA has approved the following methods for removing mercury from drinking water: Coagulation/filtration, granulated activated carbon, lime softening and reverse osmosis.

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Sulfide precipitation is a common method for removing inorganic mercury from wastewater. Starch xanthate is an alternative adsorption material to activated carbon. Sources: Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, EPA, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Water Quality Association, WebMD.

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