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Mercury Report - Children's Exposure to Elemental Mercury

Why was the report written?

Children attending a daycare in New Jersey were exposed to elemental (metallic) mercury. The daycare opened in a building that was previously a thermometer factory. Before the daycare opened, the building was not cleaned properly.

Elemental mercury can cause health problems.

Congress wanted to know more about events related to elemental mercury exposures. They asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to review the ways children are exposed. ATSDR worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare a report about their findings.

What did ATSDR find?

For children, most elemental mercury exposures happen at home or at school.

  • Home
    mercury thermometer Most home exposures are due to broken thermometers. Mercury is also in some medical and mechanical equipment used in the home and in compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Some cultural and ceremonial practices use elemental mercury. People who work with mercury may bring it home on their clothes or shoes.
    See section 10.1 of the report for more information>>
  • School
    teacher talking to his students Mercury sources in schools include science labs and broken instruments. Students who find mercury in other places may bring it to school. Some types of polyurethane flooring used in schools may give off mercury vapors, especially when damaged.
    See section 10.2 of the report for more information>>

Any location in which mercury is spilled and not properly cleaned up can cause exposure.  For example, some medical and dental clinics use mercury or items that contain mercury.  If these items are broken, children could be exposed. Children can also scavenge mercury from abandoned properties.

Exposure to elemental mercury most often occurs when it is handled the wrong way or when a spill is not cleaned up correctly.

State and federal agencies work to teach people about mercury and to make it less available.  

Information on how to clean up mercury spills is also available.

ATSDR’s Don’t Mess With Mercury website offers information for teachers and students about the dangers of mercury and how to prevent exposure.

What information was used in the report?

Scientists reviewed data from six sources:

  • ATSDR—Health Consultations and Emergency Response Calls,
  • ATSDR—Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance,
  • U.S. Coast Guard—National Response Center database,
  • American Association of Poison Control Centers—National Poison Data System, and
  • Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics— Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units,
  • Scientific articles about events that exposed children to elemental mercury.

The report did not include a review of mercury exposures from coal-burning power plants, dental fillings, fish, medical waste incinerators, and vaccines. 

How can I limit exposure to mercury?

Parents and school officials can limit children’s exposure to mercury through some simple steps.