This metal can exist in all three states as a liquid, a vapor and a solid. And this toxic substance might be lurking inside you already. So what would happen if you swallowed liquid mercury?
Could too much mercury alter your brain chemistry? Or would it cleanse your system? And what foods contain the highest amount of mercury?
In 1804, American explorers Lewis and Clark set off to map 12,900 km (8,000 mi) of land bought from the French government. And if you wanted to trace their route, you could use a metal detector instead of a map.
Since this pair ate nothing but dried meat and whisky, they supplemented their diets with a laxative laced with mercury chloride. This pill, known as calomel, contained a high dose of mercury and gave this duo extreme diarrhea, which they called thunderclaps.
Hundreds of years later, archaeologists still find high amounts of mercury in the soil where their campsites used to be. Marketed as a cure for everything, people thought this popular drug treated illnesses from syphilis to constipation. You could say it was cleaning out their systems thoroughly. But did this wonder drug do more harm than good?
There are three different types of mercury, called elemental, organic and inorganic. You’re probably most familiar with elemental mercury. That’s what you find in thermometers, electrical switches and even dental fillings. Depending on where you live, you might have already had a small dose with your dinner.
Microorganisms living on the ocean floor absorb and break down inorganic mercury compounds floating in the sea. And when larger fish, like mackerel, swordfish or tuna, eat those creatures, they contain those trace amounts of the toxic metal. Binging out at the sushi bar could give you a slight case of mercury poisoning. But if you chug this liquid metal like a shot, what would happen to your organs?
In its liquid form, mercury is insoluble, meaning it can’t break down further. As this metal passes through your body, only 0.1% of it would remain in your system. The rest would flush right out. And on its way through you, it would kill bacteria and violently clean out your intestines. But if this substance remained in your bloodstream, the toxic effects would begin to destroy your body.
If you kept ingesting liquid mercury, it could build up in your appendix. Over time, the bacteria in your body would convert this metal into organic mercury compounds. And then the real toxic effects would kick in.
Once the liquid crosses the blood-brain barrier, iit could end up inside your brain, causing severe neurological issues. You might suffer from anxiety, depression, irritability, tremors and numbness. With your muscles weakening and your lack of coordination, your mobility would be limited.
Things would get worse when this metal starts damaging your DNA. That would lead to chronic conditions like ALS, Parkinson’s disease or even Alzheimer’s disease. And excess mercury could impact the hard-working muscle in your body, your heart.
Ingesting too much liquid mercury could cause your heart to grow and the tissue to thicken. Your blood flow would slow, and your cardiovascular system could be in danger of shutting down. This metal could even impair your kidney functions and lead to renal cancer. And while liquid mercury could tear you apart physically and mentally, it still wouldn’t be as dangerous as if you breathed it in.
Liquid mercury vaporizes at room temperature. While consuming this metal can damage your body over time, inhaling mercury can lead to instant damage. These tiny invisible atoms have no scent, and they break down in fats and oils. Once inside your lungs, mercury can poison your brain, causing sleep disorders and even paralysis. Unlike water vapor, this form of mercury can linger for days or even weeks, killing you slowly without you even knowing.
Swallowing liquid mercury may not seem harmful since most of it exits your body. But inhaling the vapor from the build-up of this toxin could create damage that lasts a lifetime. So hold off breaking open that thermometer. But maybe you’re still in the mood to drink some metal anyway. So what if you swallowed gallium?
- “Here Are Three Sustainable Seafood Brands To Know For World Oceans Day”. Tiffany, Duong. 2021. Ecowatch.
- “Understanding Mercury Poisoning”. 2021. Healthline.
- Mercury. 2021. cdc.gov.
- “Separating Fact From Fiction About Mercury Detox”. 2021. Healthline.