Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Occurrence and mobility of mercury in groundwater: Chapter 5

July 27, 2013

1. Introduction

1.1. FORMS, TOXICITY, AND HEALTH EFFECTS

Mercury (Hg) has long been identified as an element that is injurious, even lethal, to living organisms. Exposure to its inorganic form, mainly from elemental Hg (Hg(0)) vapor (Fitzgerald & Lamborg, 2007) can cause damage to respiratory, neural, and renal systems (Hutton, 1987USEPA, 2012WHO, 2012). The organic form, methylmercury (CH3Hg+; MeHg), is substantially more toxic than the inorganic form (Fitzgerald & Lamborg, 2007). Methylmercury attacks the nervous system and exposure can prove lethal, as demonstrated by well-known incidents such as those in 1956 in Minimata, Japan (Harada, 1995), and 1971 in rural Iraq (Bakir et al., 1973), where, in the former, industrial release of MeHg into coastal waters severely tainted the fish caught and eaten by the local population, and in the latter, grain seed treated with an organic mercurial fungicide was not planted, but eaten in bread instead. Resultant deaths are not known with certainty but have been estimated at about 100 and 500, respectively (Hutton, 1987). Absent such lethal accidents, human exposure to MeHg comes mainly from ingestion of piscivorous fish in which MeHg has accumulated, with potential fetal damage ascribed to high fish diets during their mothers’ pregnancies (USEPA, 2001). Lesser human exposure occurs through ingestion of drinking water (USEPA, 2001), where concentrations of total Hg (THg; inorganic plus organic forms) typically are in the low nanograms-per-liter range[1] - , particularly from many groundwater sources, and concentrations at the microgram-per-liter level are rare.