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Mercury - known as "Hg" to chemists - is a naturally occurring element. It is a metal and conducts electricity. Liquid at room temperature, it combines easily with other metals and expands and contracts evenly with temperature changes. Because of these properties, mercury has been used in many households [PDF], medical and industrial products.
Although mercury performs many useful functions in our workplaces and homes, it is toxic and can impair the way we see, hear and function.
Mercury evaporates slowly. If spilled or improperly stored, this evaporation will cause continuous contamination of the air you breathe.
Mercury poisoning attacks the central nervous system in all humans. Children, especially those under the age of 6, are more susceptible to mercury poisoning. Each year, Indiana has about 300 reported cases of mercury poisoning involving children exposed to mercury from broken thermometers alone.
Less than a third of the mercury in the environment is naturally occurring. The majority is released through preventable human pollution. It enters the atmosphere, lakes and streams from coal burning for power generation, from industrial sources and by improper disposal of household products that contain mercury.
Improper mercury disposal includes: pouring it down drains, putting it in the trash and burning it in barrels and incinerators. These improper disposal methods can elevate mercury contamination to harmful levels.
When mercury seeps into lakes and waterways, it undergoes a natural chemical process and is converted to a more deadly form - methyl mercury. It then contaminates the food chain by building up in the tissue of fish and animals including those we eat. Because of high mercury concentrations in fish, the State of Indiana issues annual fish consumption advisories, which are available from your local health department.