Mercury is a chemical element with symbol Hg and atomic number 80. It
is commonly known as quicksilver and was formerly named hydrargyrum
(/haɪˈdrɑːrdʒərəm/). A heavy, silvery d-block element,
mercury is the only metallic element that is liquid at standard
conditions for temperature and pressure; the only other element that
is liquid under these conditions is bromine, though metals such as
caesium, gallium, and rubidium melt just above room temperature.
Mercury occurs in deposits throughout the world mostly as cinnabar
(mercuric sulfide). The red pigment vermilion is obtained by grinding
natural cinnabar or synthetic mercuric sulfide.
Mercury is used in thermometers, barometers, manometers,
sphygmomanometers, float valves, mercury switches, mercury relays,
fluorescent lamps and other devices, though concerns about the
element's toxicity have led to mercury thermometers and
sphygmomanometers being largely phased out in clinical environments in
favor of alternatives such as alcohol- or galinstan-filled glass
thermometers and thermistor- or infrared-based electronic instruments.
Likewise, mechanical pressure gauges and electronic strain gauge
sensors have replaced mercury sphygmomanometers. Mercury remains in
use in scientific research applications and in amalgam for dental
restoration in some locales. It is used in fluorescent lighting.
Electricity passed through mercury vapor in a fluorescent lamp
produces short-wave ultraviolet light which then causes the phosphor
in the tube to fluoresce, making visible light.
Mercury poisoning can result from exposure to water-soluble forms of
mercury (such as mercuric chloride or methylmercury), by inhalation of
mercury vapor, or by ingesting any form of mercury.
1.1 Physical properties
1.2 Chemical properties
5.1 Compounds of mercury(I)
5.2 Compounds of mercury(II)
5.3 Possibility of higher oxidation states
6.2 Production of chlorine and caustic soda
6.3 Laboratory uses
6.4 Niche uses
6.6 Historic uses
6.6.1 Historic medicinal uses
7 Toxicity and safety
7.1 Releases in the environment
7.2 Sediment contamination
7.3 Occupational exposure
7.3.1 Effects and symptoms of mercury poisoning
8.2 United States
8.3 European Union
9 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
A pound coin (density ~7.6 g/cm3) floats in mercury due to the
combination of the buoyant force and surface tension.
Mercury is a heavy, silvery-white liquid metal. Compared to other
metals, it is a poor conductor of heat, but a fair conductor of
It has a freezing point of −38.83 °C and a boiling point of
356.73 °C, both the lowest of any stable metal,
although preliminary experiments on copernicium and flerovium have
indicated that they have even lower boiling points (copernicium being
the element below mercury in the periodic table, following the trend
of decreasing boiling points down group 12). Upon freezing, the
volume of mercury decreases by 3.59% and its density changes from
13.69 g/cm3 when liquid to 14.184 g/cm3 when solid. The
coefficient of volume expansion is 181.59 × 10−6 at 0 °C,
181.71 × 10−6 at 20 °C and 182.50 × 10−6 at 100 °C
(per °C). Solid mercury is malleable and ductile and can be cut with
A complete explanation of mercury's extreme volatility delves deep
into the realm of quantum physics, but it can be summarized as
follows: mercury has a unique electron configuration where electrons
fill up all the available 1s, 2s, 2p, 3s, 3p, 3d, 4s, 4p, 4d, 4f, 5s,
5p, 5d, and 6s subshells. Because this configuration strongly resists
removal of an electron, mercury behaves similarly to noble gases,
which form weak bonds and hence melt at low temperatures.
The stability of the 6s shell is due to the presence of a filled 4f
shell. An f shell poorly screens the nuclear charge that increases the
attractive Coulomb interaction of the 6s shell and the nucleus (see
lanthanide contraction). The absence of a filled inner f shell is the
reason for the somewhat higher melting temperature of cadmium and
zinc, although both these metals still melt easily and, in addition,
have unusually low boiling points.
Mercury does not react with most acids, such as dilute sulfuric acid,
although oxidizing acids such as concentrated sulfuric acid and nitric
acid or aqua regia dissolve it to give sulfate, nitrate, and chloride.
Like silver, mercury reacts with atmospheric hydrogen sulfide. Mercury
reacts with solid sulfur flakes, which are used in mercury spill kits
to absorb mercury (spill kits also use activated carbon and powdered
Mercury-discharge spectral calibration lamp
Mercury dissolves many other metals such as gold and silver to form
Iron is an exception, and iron flasks have traditionally
been used to trade mercury. Several other first row transition metals
with the exception of manganese, copper and zinc are reluctant to form
amalgams. Other elements that do not readily form amalgams with
mercury include platinum.
Sodium amalgam is a common reducing
agent in organic synthesis, and is also used in high-pressure sodium
Mercury readily combines with aluminium to form a mercury-aluminium
amalgam when the two pure metals come into contact. Since the amalgam
destroys the aluminium oxide layer which protects metallic aluminium
from oxidizing in-depth (as in iron rusting), even small amounts of
mercury can seriously corrode aluminium. For this reason, mercury is
not allowed aboard an aircraft under most circumstances because of the
risk of it forming an amalgam with exposed aluminium parts in the
Mercury embrittlement is the most common type of liquid metal
Main article: Isotopes of mercury
There are seven stable isotopes of mercury with 202Hg being the most
abundant (29.86%). The longest-lived radioisotopes are 194Hg with a
half-life of 444 years, and 203Hg with a half-life of 46.612 days.
Most of the remaining radioisotopes have half-lives that are less than
a day. 199Hg and 201Hg are the most often studied NMR-active nuclei,
having spins of 1⁄2 and 3⁄2 respectively.
Hg is the modern chemical symbol for mercury. It comes from
hydrargyrum, a Latinized form of the Greek word ὑδράργυρος
(hydrargyros), which is a compound word meaning "water-silver" (from
ὑδρ- hydr-, the root of ὕδωρ, "water," and ἄργυρος
argyros "silver") – since it is liquid like water and shiny like
silver. The element was named after the Roman god Mercury, known for
his speed and mobility. It is associated with the planet Mercury; the
astrological symbol for the planet is also one of the alchemical
symbols for the metal; the Sanskrit word for alchemy is Rasavātam
which means "the way of mercury". Mercury is the only metal for
which the alchemical planetary name became the common name.
The symbol for the planet Mercury (☿) has been used since ancient
times to represent the element
Mercury was found in Egyptian tombs that date from 1500 BC.
China and Tibet, mercury use was thought to prolong life, heal
fractures, and maintain generally good health, although it is now
known that exposure to mercury vapor leads to serious adverse health
effects. The first emperor of China, Qín Shǐ Huáng
Dì—allegedly buried in a tomb that contained rivers of flowing
mercury on a model of the land he ruled, representative of the rivers
of China—was killed by drinking a mercury and powdered jade mixture
formulated by Qin alchemists (causing liver failure, mercury
poisoning, and brain death) who intended to give him eternal
life. Khumarawayh ibn Ahmad ibn Tulun, the second Tulunid
ruler of Egypt (r. 884–896), known for his extravagance and
profligacy, reportedly built a basin filled with mercury, on which he
would lie on top of air-filled cushions and be rocked to sleep.
In November 2014 "large quantities" of mercury were discovered in a
chamber 60 feet below the 1800-year-old pyramid known as the "Temple
of the Feathered Serpent," "the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan,"
Mexico along with "jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with
carved shells and rubber balls."
The ancient Greeks used cinnabar (mercury sulfide) in ointments; the
ancient Egyptians and the Romans used it in cosmetics. In Lamanai,
once a major city of the Maya civilization, a pool of mercury was
found under a marker in a Mesoamerican ballcourt. By 500 BC
mercury was used to make amalgams (Medieval
Latin amalgama, "alloy of
mercury") with other metals.
Alchemists thought of mercury as the First Matter from which all
metals were formed. They believed that different metals could be
produced by varying the quality and quantity of sulfur contained
within the mercury. The purest of these was gold, and mercury was
called for in attempts at the transmutation of base (or impure) metals
into gold, which was the goal of many alchemists.
The mines in
Monte Amiata (Italy), and
Slovenia) dominated mercury production from the opening of the mine in
Almadén 2500 years ago, until new deposits were found at the end of
the 19th century.
See also: Category:Mercury minerals and Category:Mercury mines
Mercury is an extremely rare element in Earth's crust, having an
average crustal abundance by mass of only 0.08 parts per million
(ppm). Because it does not blend geochemically with those elements
that constitute the majority of the crustal mass, mercury ores can be
extraordinarily concentrated considering the element's abundance in
ordinary rock. The richest mercury ores contain up to 2.5% mercury by
mass, and even the leanest concentrated deposits are at least 0.1%
mercury (12,000 times average crustal abundance). It is found either
as a native metal (rare) or in cinnabar, corderoite, livingstonite and
other minerals, with cinnabar (HgS) being the most common ore.
Mercury ores usually occur in very young orogenic belts where rocks of
high density are forced to the crust of Earth, often
in hot springs or other volcanic regions.
Beginning in 1558, with the invention of the patio process to extract
silver from ore using mercury, mercury became an essential resource in
the economy of Spain and its American colonies. Mercury was used to
extract silver from the lucrative mines in
New Spain and Peru.
Initially, the Spanish Crown's mines in
Almadén in Southern Spain
supplied all the mercury for the colonies. Mercury deposits were
discovered in the New World, and more than 100,000 tons of mercury
were mined from the region of Huancavelica, Peru, over the course of
three centuries following the discovery of deposits there in 1563. The
patio process and later pan amalgamation process continued to create
great demand for mercury to treat silver ores until the late 19th
Native mercury with cinnabar, Socrates mine, Sonoma County,
Cinnabar sometimes alters to native mercury in the
oxidized zone of mercury deposits.
Former mines in Italy, the United States and Mexico, which once
produced a large proportion of the world supply, have now been
completely mined out or, in the case of Slovenia (Idrija) and Spain
(Almadén), shut down due to the fall of the price of mercury.
Nevada's McDermitt Mine, the last mercury mine in the United States,
closed in 1992. The price of mercury has been highly volatile over the
years and in 2006 was $650 per 76-pound (34.46 kg) flask.
Mercury is extracted by heating cinnabar in a current of air and
condensing the vapor. The equation for this extraction is
HgS + O2 → Hg + SO2
China was the top producer of mercury with almost two-thirds
global share followed by Kyrgyzstan. Several other countries are
believed to have unrecorded production of mercury from copper
electrowinning processes and by recovery from effluents.
Because of the high toxicity of mercury, both the mining of cinnabar
and refining for mercury are hazardous and historic causes of mercury
poisoning. In China, prison labor was used by a private mining
company as recently as the 1950s to develop new cinnabar mines.
Thousands of prisoners were used by the Luo Xi mining company to
establish new tunnels. Worker health in functioning mines is at
European Union directive calling for compact fluorescent bulbs to
be made mandatory by 2012 has encouraged
China to re-open cinnabar
mines to obtain the mercury required for CFL bulb manufacture.
Environmental dangers have been a concern, particularly in the
southern cities of
Foshan and Guangzhou, and in
Guizhou province in
Abandoned mercury mine processing sites often contain very hazardous
waste piles of roasted cinnabar calcines. Water run-off from such
sites is a recognized source of ecological damage. Former mercury
mines may be suited for constructive re-use. For example, in 1976
Santa Clara County, California
Santa Clara County, California purchased the historic Almaden
Quicksilver Mine and created a county park on the site, after
conducting extensive safety and environmental analysis of the
See also: Category:Mercury compounds
Mercury exists in two main oxidation states, I and II.
Compounds of mercury(I)
Unlike its lighter neighbors, cadmium and zinc, mercury usually forms
simple stable compounds with metal-metal bonds. Most mercury(I)
compounds are diamagnetic and feature the dimeric cation, Hg2+
2. Stable derivatives include the chloride and nitrate. Treatment of
Hg(I) compounds complexation with strong ligands such as sulfide,
cyanide, etc. induces disproportionation to Hg2+ and elemental
mercury. Mercury(I) chloride, a colorless solid also known as
calomel, is really the compound with the formula Hg2Cl2, with the
connectivity Cl-Hg-Hg-Cl. It is a standard in electrochemistry. It
reacts with chlorine to give mercuric chloride, which resists further
oxidation. Mercury(I) hydride, a colorless gas, has the formula HgH,
containing no Hg-Hg bond.
Indicative of its tendency to bond to itself, mercury forms mercury
polycations, which consist of linear chains of mercury centers, capped
with a positive charge. One example is Hg2+
Compounds of mercury(II)
Mercury(II) is the most common oxidation state and is the main one in
nature as well. All four mercuric halides are known. They form
tetrahedral complexes with other ligands but the halides adopt linear
coordination geometry, somewhat like Ag+ does. Best known is
mercury(II) chloride, an easily sublimating white solid. HgCl2 forms
coordination complexes that are typically tetrahedral, e.g. HgCl2−
Mercury(II) oxide, the main oxide of mercury, arises when the metal is
exposed to air for long periods at elevated temperatures. It reverts
to the elements upon heating near 400 °C, as was demonstrated by
Joseph Priestley in an early synthesis of pure oxygen. Hydroxides
of mercury are poorly characterized, as they are for its neighbors
gold and silver.
Being a soft metal, mercury forms very stable derivatives with the
heavier chalcogens. Preeminent is mercury(II) sulfide, HgS, which
occurs in nature as the ore cinnabar and is the brilliant pigment
vermillion. Like ZnS, HgS crystallizes in two forms, the reddish cubic
form and the black zinc blende form.
Mercury(II) selenide (HgSe)
and mercury(II) telluride (HgTe) are also known, these as well as
various derivatives, e.g. mercury cadmium telluride and mercury zinc
telluride being semiconductors useful as infrared detector
Mercury(II) salts form a variety of complex derivatives with ammonia.
These include Millon's base (Hg2N+), the one-dimensional polymer
(salts of HgNH+
n), and "fusible white precipitate" or [Hg(NH3)2]Cl2. Known as
Nessler's reagent, potassium tetraiodomercurate(II) (HgI2−
4) is still occasionally used to test for ammonia owing to its
tendency to form the deeply colored iodide salt of Millon's base.
Mercury fulminate is a detonator widely used in explosives.
Possibility of higher oxidation states
Oxidation states above +2 in an uncharged species are extremely rare,
although a cyclic mercurinium(IV) cation, with three substituents, may
be an intermediate in oxymercuration reactions. In 2007, a
report of synthesis of a mercury(IV) compound, mercury(IV) fluoride,
was published, but later experiments could not replicate the
synthesis. In the 1970s, there was a claim on synthesis of a
mercury(III) compound, but it is now thought to be false.
Organic mercury compounds are historically important but are of little
industrial value in the western world. Mercury(II) salts are a rare
example of simple metal complexes that react directly with aromatic
Organomercury compounds are always divalent and usually
two-coordinate and linear geometry. Unlike organocadmium and
organozinc compounds, organomercury compounds do not react with water.
They usually have the formula HgR2, which are often volatile, or HgRX,
which are often solids, where R is aryl or alkyl and X is usually
halide or acetate. Methylmercury, a generic term for compounds with
the formula CH3HgX, is a dangerous family of compounds that are often
found in polluted water. They arise by a process known as
The bulb of a mercury-in-glass thermometer
Mercury is used primarily for the manufacture of industrial chemicals
or for electrical and electronic applications. It is used in some
thermometers, especially ones which are used to measure high
temperatures. A still increasing amount is used as gaseous mercury in
fluorescent lamps, while most of the other applications are slowly
phased out due to health and safety regulations and is in some
applications replaced with less toxic but considerably more expensive
See also: Amalgam (dentistry)
Mercury and its compounds have been used in medicine, although they
are much less common today than they once were, now that the toxic
effects of mercury and its compounds are more widely understood. The
first edition of the Merck's Manual featured many mercuric
compounds such as:
Mercury Bichloride (Corrosive Mercuric Chloride, U.S.P.)
Mild Mercury Cyanide
Red Mercury Biniodide
Yellow Mercury Proto-iodide
Black (Hahnemann), Soluble Mercury Oxide
Red Mercury Oxide
Yellow Mercury Oxide
Basic Mercury Subsulphate; Turpeth Mineral
Mercury is an ingredient in dental amalgams.
Thimerosal in the United States) is an organic compound used as a
preservative in vaccines, though this use is in decline.
Thiomersal is metabolized to ethyl mercury. Although it was widely
speculated that this mercury-based preservative could cause or trigger
autism in children, scientific studies showed no evidence supporting
any such link. Nevertheless, thiomersal has been removed from, or
reduced to trace amounts in all U.S. vaccines recommended for children
6 years of age and under, with the exception of inactivated influenza
Another mercury compound, merbromin (Mercurochrome), is a topical
antiseptic used for minor cuts and scrapes that is still in use in
Mercury in the form of one of its common ores, cinnabar, is used in
various traditional medicines, especially in traditional Chinese
medicine. Review of its safety has found that cinnabar can lead to
significant mercury intoxication when heated, consumed in overdose, or
taken long term, and can have adverse effects at therapeutic doses,
though effects from therapeutic doses are typically reversible.
Although this form of mercury appears to be less toxic than other
forms, its use in traditional Chinese medicine has not yet been
justified, as the therapeutic basis for the use of cinnabar is not
Today, the use of mercury in medicine has greatly declined in all
respects, especially in developed countries. Thermometers and
sphygmomanometers containing mercury were invented in the early 18th
and late 19th centuries, respectively. In the early 21st century,
their use is declining and has been banned in some countries, states
and medical institutions. In 2002, the
U.S. Senate passed legislation
to phase out the sale of non-prescription mercury thermometers. In
2003, Washington and
Maine became the first states to ban mercury
blood pressure devices. Mercury compounds are found in some
over-the-counter drugs, including topical antiseptics, stimulant
laxatives, diaper-rash ointment, eye drops, and nasal sprays. The FDA
has "inadequate data to establish general recognition of the safety
and effectiveness" of the mercury ingredients in these products.
Mercury is still used in some diuretics although substitutes now exist
for most therapeutic uses.
Production of chlorine and caustic soda
Chlorine is produced from sodium chloride (common salt, NaCl) using
electrolysis to separate the metallic sodium from the chlorine gas.
Usually the salt is dissolved in water to produce a brine. By-products
of any such chloralkali process are hydrogen (H2) and sodium hydroxide
(NaOH), which is commonly called caustic soda or lye. By far the
largest use of mercury in the late 20th century was in the
mercury cell process (also called the Castner-Kellner process) where
metallic sodium is formed as an amalgam at a cathode made from
mercury; this sodium is then reacted with water to produce sodium
hydroxide. Many of the industrial mercury releases of the 20th
century came from this process, although modern plants claimed to be
safe in this regard. After about 1985, all new chloralkali
production facilities that were built in the United States used
membrane cell or diaphragm cell technologies to produce chlorine.
Some medical thermometers, especially those for high temperatures, are
filled with mercury; they are gradually disappearing. In the United
States, non-prescription sale of mercury fever thermometers has been
banned since 2003.
Mercury is also found in liquid mirror telescopes.
Some transit telescopes use a basin of mercury to form a flat and
absolutely horizontal mirror, useful in determining an absolute
vertical or perpendicular reference. Concave horizontal parabolic
mirrors may be formed by rotating liquid mercury on a disk, the
parabolic form of the liquid thus formed reflecting and focusing
incident light. Such telescopes are cheaper than conventional large
mirror telescopes by up to a factor of 100, but the mirror cannot be
tilted and always points straight up.
Liquid mercury is a part of popular secondary reference electrode
(called the calomel electrode) in electrochemistry as an alternative
to the standard hydrogen electrode. The calomel electrode is used to
work out the electrode potential of half cells. Last, but not
least, the triple point of mercury, −38.8344 °C, is a fixed
point used as a temperature standard for the International Temperature
In polarography both the dropping mercury electrode  and the
hanging mercury drop electrode  use elemental mercury. This use
allows a new uncontaminated electrode to be available for each
measurement or each new experiment.
Gaseous mercury is used in mercury-vapor lamps and some "neon sign"
type advertising signs and fluorescent lamps. Those low-pressure lamps
emit very spectrally narrow lines, which are traditionally used in
optical spectroscopy for calibration of spectral position. Commercial
calibration lamps are sold for this purpose; reflecting a fluorescent
ceiling light into a spectrometer is a common calibration
practice. Gaseous mercury is also found in some electron tubes,
including ignitrons, thyratrons, and mercury arc rectifiers. It is
also used in specialist medical care lamps for skin tanning and
disinfection. Gaseous mercury is added to cold cathode
argon-filled lamps to increase the ionization and electrical
conductivity. An argon-filled lamp without mercury will have dull
spots and will fail to light correctly. Lighting containing mercury
can be bombarded/oven pumped only once. When added to neon filled
tubes the light produced will be inconsistent red/blue spots until the
initial burning-in process is completed; eventually it will light a
consistent dull off-blue color.
The deep violet glow of a mercury vapor discharge in a germicidal
lamp, whose spectrum is rich in invisible ultraviolet radiation.
Skin tanner containing a low-pressure mercury vapor lamp and two
infrared lamps, which act both as light source and electrical ballast
Assorted types of fluorescent lamps.
Mercury, as thiomersal, is widely used in the manufacture of mascara.
In 2008, Minnesota became the first state in the United States to ban
intentionally added mercury in cosmetics, giving it a tougher standard
than the federal government.
A study in geometric mean urine mercury concentration identified a
previously unrecognized source of exposure (skin care products) to
inorganic mercury among
New York City
New York City residents. Population-based
biomonitoring also showed that mercury concentration levels are higher
in consumers of seafood and fish meals.
Mercury(II) fulminate is a primary explosive which is mainly used as a
primer of a cartridge in firearms.
A Single-Pole, Single-Throw (SPST) mercury switch.
Mercury manometer to measure pressure
Many historic applications made use of the peculiar physical
properties of mercury, especially as a dense liquid and a liquid
Quantities of liquid mercury ranging from 90 to 600 grams (3.2 to
21.2 oz) have been recovered from elite Maya tombs
(100-700AD) or ritual caches at six sites. This mercury may have
been used in bowls as mirrors for divinatory purposes. Five of these
date to the Classic Period of
Maya civilization (c. 250–900) but one
example predated this.
In Islamic Spain, it was used for filling decorative pools. Later, the
Alexander Calder built a mercury fountain for the
Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. The fountain
is now on display at the
Fundació Joan Miró
Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.
Mercury was used inside wobbler lures. Its heavy, liquid form made it
useful since the lures made an attractive irregular movement when the
mercury moved inside the plug. Such use was stopped due to
environmental concerns, but illegal preparation of modern fishing
plugs has occurred.
The Fresnel lenses of old lighthouses used to float and rotate in a
bath of mercury which acted like a bearing.
Mercury sphygmomanometers (blood pressure meter), barometers,
diffusion pumps, coulometers, and many other laboratory instruments.
As an opaque liquid with a high density and a nearly linear thermal
expansion, it is ideal for this role.
As an electrically conductive liquid, it was used in mercury switches
(including home mercury light switches installed prior to 1970), tilt
switches used in old fire detectors, and tilt switches in some home
Owing to its acoustic properties, mercury was used as the propagation
medium in delay line memory devices used in early digital computers of
the mid-20th century.
Experimental mercury vapor turbines were installed to increase the
efficiency of fossil-fuel electrical power plants. The South
Meadow power plant in Hartford, CT employed mercury as its working
fluid, in a binary configuration with a secondary water circuit, for a
number of years starting in the late 1920s in a drive to improve plant
efficiency. Several other plants were built, including the Schiller
Station in Portsmouth, NH, which went online in 1950. The idea did not
catch on industry-wide due to the weight and toxicity of mercury, as
well as the advent of supercritical steam plants in later
Similarly, liquid mercury was used as a coolant for some nuclear
reactors; however, sodium is proposed for reactors cooled with liquid
metal, because the high density of mercury requires much more energy
to circulate as coolant.
Mercury was a propellant for early ion engines in electric space
propulsion systems. Advantages were mercury's high molecular weight,
low ionization energy, low dual-ionization energy, high liquid density
and liquid storability at room temperature. Disadvantages were
concerns regarding environmental impact associated with ground testing
and concerns about eventual cooling and condensation of some of the
propellant on the spacecraft in long-duration operations. The first
spaceflight to use electric propulsion was a mercury-fueled ion
thruster developed by
NASA Lewis and flown on the Space Electric
Rocket Test "SERT-1" spacecraft launched by
NASA at its Wallops Flight
Facility in 1964. The
SERT-1 flight was followed up by the SERT-2
flight in 1970. Mercury and caesium were preferred propellants for ion
Hughes Research Laboratory
Hughes Research Laboratory performed studies finding
xenon gas to be a suitable replacement.
Xenon is now the preferred
propellant for ion engines as it has a high molecular weight, little
or no reactivity due to its noble gas nature, and has a high liquid
density under mild cryogenic storage.
Others applications made use of the chemical properties of mercury:
The mercury battery is a non-rechargeable electrochemical battery, a
primary cell, that was common in the middle of the 20th century. It
was used in a wide variety of applications and was available in
various sizes, particularly button sizes. Its constant voltage output
and long shelf life gave it a niche use for camera light meters and
hearing aids. The mercury cell was effectively banned in most
countries in the 1990s due to concerns about the mercury contaminating
Mercury was used for preserving wood, developing daguerreotypes,
silvering mirrors, anti-fouling paints (discontinued in 1990),
herbicides (discontinued in 1995), handheld maze games, cleaning, and
road leveling devices in cars. Mercury compounds have been used in
antiseptics, laxatives, antidepressants, and in antisyphilitics.
It was allegedly used by allied spies to sabotage Luftwaffe planes: a
mercury paste was applied to bare aluminium, causing the metal to
rapidly corrode; this would cause structural failures.
Chloralkali process: The largest industrial use of mercury during the
20th century was in electrolysis for separating chlorine and sodium
from brine; mercury being the anode of the Castner-Kellner process.
The chlorine was used for bleaching paper (hence the location of many
of these plants near paper mills) while the sodium was used to make
sodium hydroxide for soaps and other cleaning products. This usage has
largely been discontinued, replaced with other technologies that
utilize membrane cells.
As electrodes in some types of electrolysis, batteries (mercury
cells), sodium hydroxide and chlorine production, handheld games,
Mercury was once used as a gun barrel bore cleaner.
From the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, a process called
"carroting" was used in the making of felt hats. Animal skins were
rinsed in an orange solution (the term "carroting" arose from this
color) of the mercury compound mercuric nitrate, Hg(NO3)2·2H2O.
This process separated the fur from the pelt and matted it together.
This solution and the vapors it produced were highly toxic. The United
States Public Health Service banned the use of mercury in the felt
industry in December 1941. The psychological symptoms associated with
mercury poisoning inspired the phrase "mad as a hatter". Lewis
Carroll's "Mad Hatter" in his book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
was a play on words based on the older phrase, but the character
himself does not exhibit symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Gold and silver mining. Historically, mercury was used extensively in
hydraulic gold mining in order to help the gold to sink through the
flowing water-gravel mixture. Thin gold particles may form
mercury-gold amalgam and therefore increase the gold recovery
rates. Large-scale use of mercury stopped in the 1960s. However,
mercury is still used in small scale, often clandestine, gold
prospecting. It is estimated that 45,000 metric tons of mercury used
in California for placer mining have not been recovered. Mercury
was also used in silver mining.
Historic medicinal uses
Mercury(I) chloride (also known as calomel or mercurous chloride) has
been used in traditional medicine as a diuretic, topical disinfectant,
Mercury(II) chloride (also known as mercuric chloride or
corrosive sublimate) was once used to treat syphilis (along with other
mercury compounds), although it is so toxic that sometimes the
symptoms of its toxicity were confused with those of the syphilis it
was believed to treat. It is also used as a disinfectant. Blue
mass, a pill or syrup in which mercury is the main ingredient, was
prescribed throughout the 19th century for numerous conditions
including constipation, depression, child-bearing and toothaches.
In the early 20th century, mercury was administered to children yearly
as a laxative and dewormer, and it was used in teething powders for
infants. The mercury-containing organohalide merbromin (sometimes sold
as Mercurochrome) is still widely used but has been banned in some
countries such as the U.S.
Toxicity and safety
Mercury poisoning and Mercury cycle
Mercury and most of its compounds are extremely toxic and must be
handled with care; in cases of spills involving mercury (such as from
certain thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs), specific cleaning
procedures are used to avoid exposure and contain the spill.
Protocols call for physically merging smaller droplets on hard
surfaces, combining them into a single larger pool for easier removal
with an eyedropper, or for gently pushing the spill into a disposable
container. Vacuum cleaners and brooms cause greater dispersal of the
mercury and should not be used. Afterwards, fine sulfur, zinc, or some
other powder that readily forms an amalgam (alloy) with mercury at
ordinary temperatures is sprinkled over the area before itself being
collected and properly disposed of. Cleaning porous surfaces and
clothing is not effective at removing all traces of mercury and it is
therefore advised to discard these kinds of items should they be
exposed to a mercury spill.
Mercury can be absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes and
mercury vapors can be inhaled, so containers of mercury are securely
sealed to avoid spills and evaporation. Heating of mercury, or of
compounds of mercury that may decompose when heated, should be carried
out with adequate ventilation in order to minimize exposure to mercury
vapor. The most toxic forms of mercury are its organic compounds, such
as dimethylmercury and methylmercury. Mercury can cause both chronic
and acute poisoning.
Releases in the environment
Amount of atmospheric mercury deposited at Wyoming's Upper Fremont
Glacier over the last 270 years
Preindustrial deposition rates of mercury from the atmosphere may be
about 4 ng /(1 L of ice deposit). Although that can be considered
a natural level of exposure, regional or global sources have
significant effects. Volcanic eruptions can increase the atmospheric
source by 4–6 times.
Natural sources, such as volcanoes, are responsible for approximately
half of atmospheric mercury emissions. The human-generated half can be
divided into the following estimated percentages:
65% from stationary combustion, of which coal-fired power plants are
the largest aggregate source (40% of U.S. mercury emissions in 1999).
This includes power plants fueled with gas where the mercury has not
been removed. Emissions from coal combustion are between one and two
orders of magnitude higher than emissions from oil combustion,
depending on the country.
11% from gold production. The three largest point sources for mercury
emissions in the U.S. are the three largest gold mines.
Hydrogeochemical release of mercury from gold-mine tailings has been
accounted as a significant source of atmospheric mercury in eastern
6.8% from non-ferrous metal production, typically smelters.
6.4% from cement production.
3.0% from waste disposal, including municipal and hazardous waste,
crematoria, and sewage sludge incineration.
3.0% from caustic soda production.
1.4% from pig iron and steel production.
1.1% from mercury production, mainly for batteries.
2.0% from other sources.
The above percentages are estimates of the global human-caused mercury
emissions in 2000, excluding biomass burning, an important source in
Recent atmospheric mercury contamination in outdoor urban air was
measured at 0.01–0.02 µg/m3. A 2001 study measured mercury
levels in 12 indoor sites chosen to represent a cross-section of
building types, locations and ages in the New York area. This study
found mercury concentrations significantly elevated over outdoor
concentrations, at a range of 0.0065 – 0.523 μg/m3. The
average was 0.069 μg/m3.
Mercury also enters into the environment through the improper disposal
(e.g., land filling, incineration) of certain products. Products
containing mercury include: auto parts, batteries, fluorescent bulbs,
medical products, thermometers, and thermostats. Due to health
concerns (see below), toxics use reduction efforts are cutting back or
eliminating mercury in such products. For example, the amount of
mercury sold in thermostats in the United States decreased from 14.5
tons in 2004 to 3.9 tons in 2007.
Most thermometers now use pigmented alcohol instead of mercury, and
galinstan alloy thermometers are also an option. Mercury thermometers
are still occasionally used in the medical field because they are more
accurate than alcohol thermometers, though both are commonly being
replaced by electronic thermometers and less commonly by galinstan
thermometers. Mercury thermometers are still widely used for certain
scientific applications because of their greater accuracy and working
Historically, one of the largest releases was from the Colex plant, a
lithium-isotope separation plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The plant
operated in the 1950s and 1960s. Records are incomplete and unclear,
but government commissions have estimated that some two million pounds
of mercury are unaccounted for.
A serious industrial disaster was the dumping of mercury compounds
Minamata Bay, Japan. It is estimated that over 3,000 people
suffered various deformities, severe mercury poisoning symptoms or
death from what became known as
The tobacco plant readily absorbs and accumulates heavy metals such as
mercury from the surrounding soil into its leaves. These are
subsequently inhaled during tobacco smoking. While mercury is a
constituent of tobacco smoke, studies have largely failed to
discover a significant correlation between smoking and Hg uptake by
humans compared to sources such as occupational exposure, fish
consumption, and amalgam tooth fillings.
Sediments within large urban-industrial estuaries act as an important
sink for point source and diffuse mercury pollution within
catchments. A 2015 study of foreshore sediments from the Thames
estuary measured total mercury at 0.01 to 12.07 mg/kg with mean
of 2.10 mg/kg and median of 0.85 mg/kg (n=351). The
highest mercury concentrations were shown to occur in and around the
London in association with fine grain muds and high total
organic carbon content. The strong affinity of mercury for carbon
rich sediments has also been observed in salt marsh sediments of the
River Mersey mean of 2 mg/kg up to 5 mg/kg. These
concentrations are far higher than those shown in salt marsh river
creek sediments of New Jersey and mangroves of Southern
exhibit low mercury concentrations of about 0.2 mg/kg.
Due to the health effects of mercury exposure, industrial and
commercial uses are regulated in many countries. The World Health
Organization, OSHA, and NIOSH all treat mercury as an occupational
hazard, and have established specific occupational exposure limits.
Environmental releases and disposal of mercury are regulated in the
U.S. primarily by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Effects and symptoms of mercury poisoning
Main article: Mercury poisoning
Toxic effects include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs. Mercury
poisoning can result in several diseases, including acrodynia (pink
disease), Hunter-Russell syndrome, and
Symptoms typically include sensory impairment (vision, hearing,
speech), disturbed sensation and a lack of coordination. The type and
degree of symptoms exhibited depend upon the individual toxin, the
dose, and the method and duration of exposure. Case control studies
have shown effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills, and
sleep disturbance in workers with chronic exposure to mercury vapor
even at low concentrations in the range
0.7–42 μg/m3. A study has shown that acute exposure
(4 – 8 hours) to calculated elemental mercury levels of 1.1 to
44 mg/m3 resulted in chest pain, dyspnea, cough, hemoptysis,
impairment of pulmonary function, and evidence of interstitial
pneumonitis. Acute exposure to mercury vapor has been shown to
result in profound central nervous system effects, including psychotic
reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal
tendency. Occupational exposure has resulted in broad-ranging
functional disturbance, including erethism, irritability,
excitability, excessive shyness, and insomnia. With continuing
exposure, a fine tremor develops and may escalate to violent muscular
spasms. Tremor initially involves the hands and later spreads to the
eyelids, lips, and tongue. Long-term, low-level exposure has been
associated with more subtle symptoms of erethism, including fatigue,
irritability, loss of memory, vivid dreams and depression.
Research on the treatment of mercury poisoning is limited. Currently
available drugs for acute mercurial poisoning include chelators
N-acetyl-D, L-penicillamine (NAP),
British Anti-Lewisite (BAL),
2,3-dimercapto-1-propanesulfonic acid (DMPS), and dimercaptosuccinic
acid (DMSA). In one small study including 11 construction workers
exposed to elemental mercury, patients were treated with DMSA and
Chelation therapy with both drugs resulted in the
mobilization of a small fraction of the total estimated body mercury.
DMSA was able to increase the excretion of mercury to a greater extent
Main article: Mercury in fish
Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate mercury in
their bodies, often in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic
organic compound of mercury. Species of fish that are high on the food
chain, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, bluefin tuna, albacore
tuna, and tilefish contain higher concentrations of mercury than
others. As mercury and methylmercury are fat soluble, they primarily
accumulate in the viscera, although they are also found throughout the
muscle tissue. When this fish is consumed by a predator, the
mercury level is accumulated. Since fish are less efficient at
depurating than accumulating methylmercury, fish-tissue concentrations
increase over time. Thus species that are high on the food chain amass
body burdens of mercury that can be ten times higher than the species
they consume. This process is called biomagnification. Mercury
poisoning happened this way in Minamata, Japan, now called Minamata
140 countries agreed in the
Minamata Convention on Mercury by the
United Nations Environment Programme
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to prevent emissions.
 The convention was signed on 10 October 2013.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is charged
with regulating and managing mercury contamination. Several laws give
the EPA this authority, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water
Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Safe Drinking
Water Act. Additionally, the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable
Battery Management Act, passed in 1996, phases out the use of mercury
in batteries, and provides for the efficient and cost-effective
disposal of many types of used batteries. North America
contributed approximately 11% of the total global anthropogenic
mercury emissions in 1995.
The United States Clean Air Act, passed in 1990, put mercury on a list
of toxic pollutants that need to be controlled to the greatest
possible extent. Thus, industries that release high concentrations of
mercury into the environment agreed to install maximum achievable
control technologies (MACT). In March 2005, the EPA promulgated a
regulation that added power plants to the list of sources that
should be controlled and instituted a national cap and trade system.
States were given until November 2006 to impose stricter controls, but
after a legal challenge from several states, the regulations were
struck down by a federal appeals court on 8 February 2008. The rule
was deemed not sufficient to protect the health of persons living near
coal-fired power plants, given the negative effects documented in the
EPA Study Report to Congress of 1998. However newer data
published in 2015 showed that after introduction of the stricter
controls mercury declined sharply, indicating that the Clean Air Act
had its intended impact.
The EPA announced new rules for coal-fired power plants on 22 December
Cement kilns that burn hazardous waste are held to a looser
standard than are standard hazardous waste incinerators in the United
States, and as a result are a disproportionate source of mercury
In the European Union, the directive on the Restriction of the Use of
Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment
(see RoHS) bans mercury from certain electrical and electronic
products, and limits the amount of mercury in other products to less
than 1000 ppm. There are restrictions for mercury concentration
in packaging (the limit is 100 ppm for sum of mercury, lead,
hexavalent chromium and cadmium) and batteries (the limit is 5
ppm). In July 2007, the
European Union also banned mercury in
non-electrical measuring devices, such as thermometers and barometers.
The ban applies to new devices only, and contains exemptions for the
health care sector and a two-year grace period for manufacturers of
Norway enacted a total ban on the use of mercury in the manufacturing
and import/export of mercury products, effective 1 January 2008.
In 2002, several lakes in
Norway were found to have a poor state of
mercury pollution, with an excess of 1 µg/g of mercury in their
sediment. In 2008, Norway’s Minister of Environment Development
Erik Solheim said: "Mercury is among the most dangerous environmental
toxins. Satisfactory alternatives to Hg in products are available, and
it is therefore fitting to induce a ban."
Products containing mercury were banned in Sweden in 2009.
In 2008, Denmark also banned dental mercury amalgam, except for
molar masticating surface fillings in permanent (adult) teeth.
Mercury pollution in the ocean
COLEX process (isotopic separation)
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