DRHOOK- Not Freddy: Mercury affects skin, lungs, brain

the handsome doctor John Hong of Charlottesville

Planets are pretty fascinating. Don't you think it is amazing there are other planets, suns, and moons? Not to sound like Katherine Hepburn (remember, Barbara Walters asked her if she were a tree, what kind would she be?), but if I were a planet, I would definitely be Mercury, named after the Roman messenger of the gods. Like him, I like to travel fast and enjoy warm weather. I'd be the first to make it around the sun. 

"Ha-ha, Venus! I win again!" (Hmm, should I write a book, Dr. Hongs are from Mercury, Others from Venus?)

 Is mercury affecting you?

 Mercury, Hg, is a very interesting element. I first learned about it when I broke an oral thermometer, and the silvery beads of liquid spilled out onto the kitchen countertop. I tried to pick up the rolling beads with my fingers, but my mother stopped me.

"No, don't touch it!" she yelled. "It's toxic, and will absorb into your skin."

Later, in chemistry class, I learned that although Hg is a metal liquid at room temperature, it is still volatile and can easily be inhaled. 

 Throughout history, it has been observed how people get sick from Hg exposure, yet it continues to be used in many things. Some prehistoric cave drawings have traces of mercury. 

In the 19th century, Hg was used to make felt hats and mirrors. "Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who's the most toxic one of all?" 

It is thought that half a million Brazilian gold miners currently use Hg to concentrate gold. Hg is also used in some thermometers, barometers, and blood pressure gizmos. 

 The main exposures to folks like us come from eating fish and from amalgam tooth fillings. The World Health Organization estimates amalgams release 10mcg a day of Hg, which might be higher in folks (like me) who grind their teeth. So far, there are no findings showing a connection between amalgam tooth fillings and degeneration of central nervous system (CNS– the brain and spinal cord). 

 Fish is healthy for you, but you hear about not eating fish more than twice a week– and, to prevent mercury from accumulating in the body, pregnant women should not be eating fish at all. Shark, swordfish, and tuna have the highest levels of Hg. (Sorry, Charlie.) In polluted waters, methyl mercury levels are high in pike, walleye, and bass. Actor Jeremy Piven quit his Broadway play because he said eating sushi twice a day gave him mercury poisoning. 

 Of course there is the controversy of thimerosal, the Hg compound used as a preservative in vaccines. The question is whether it causes autism. Vaccines are now being made preservative free.

 Hg can be breathed in, absorbed through the skin, and ingested, depending on the chemical state of the element. Also depending on the Hg compound, it can be excreted via bowel movement, peeing it out, exhaling it, or it deposits in– hair! "I'd like highlights please to cover up the mercury."

 CNS damage can cause intentional tremor, which means there isn't a tremor when one is at rest. The tremor occurs with movement, so shaving, sewing, and writing can become a nightmare. Inflammation of the gums and salivating like a rabid wolf can steer a person away from the best of dinner parties. Poor memory, insomnia, depression, irritability, and fatigue can all occur from Hg toxicity. 

 In Hong Kong and Kenya, skin products that were supposed to lighten the skin ended up causing kidney disease! Mercury is a strong diuretic but can cause the kidneys to spill protein into the urine, which leads to fluid retention, bad cholesterol, and fatigue. 

 I might want to be the planet Mercury, but I don't really like it in my body. Music from the late Freddy Mercury, from the band Queen, is the only mercury I like in my life.


Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a renowned physician with a local practice and an interesting website, drjohnhong.com. Email him with your questions.