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Get the Facts: Heavy Metals: Mercury and Arsenic – Toxic-Free Future

Toxic-Free Future works to create a healthier tomorrow by fostering the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through advanced research, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and consumer engagement.
Mercury, arsenic, and lead are found naturally in the earth, but just because they’re natural chemical elements doesn’t mean they’re harmless. They are heavy metals with a long history of industrial and personal use—and just as long of a history of harming human health.
Mercury exacts its most devastating toll on the developing brain.
Many other health effects of these metals are well-known.
brain damage
digestive problems
kidney damage
lack of coordination
mental retardation
death if exposed to high levels
decreased intelligence
known human carcinogen: lung and skin cancer
nausea, diarrhea, vomiting
peripheral nervous system problems
Only relatively recently have people begun to take action to curtail the use of mercury and arsenic.  Local advocacy and legislation have made a difference in reducing continued pollution with these metals.
Mercury – A number of states, including Washington and Oregon, have passed legislation to address mercury use in products such as thermometers and thermostats. The Washington State Department of Ecology credits the legislation and its action plan with reducing mercury emissions by 14,000 pounds between 2003 and 2008. Major sources such as coal burning continue.
King County has had tremendous success in reducing mercury pollution from dental offices by cracking down on dentists to keep mercury out of their wastewater. Mercury in dental offices comes from amalgam fillings, which are about half mercury by weight. State law requires dentists to use devices called separators, which remove mercury from wastewater, but compliance in the past has been poor. By conducting inspections and threatening fines, King County was able to achieve 97% compliance and a 50% reduction in mercury in wastewater between 2000 and 2003 (King County 2005).
Arsenic – Arsenic-treated wood was extremely widely used before manufacturers agreed to phase it out.
The following actions would reduce ongoing exposure to these toxic heavy metals:
We come into contact with lead, mercury, and arsenic in many ways, but there are some steps we can take to reduce our exposure.
Remove treated wood. Remove wood treated with the preservatives CCA or ACZA, which contain arsenic. If removing arsenic-treated wood is not an option, you can paint or seal the wood to reduce leaching and contact exposure. Choose semi-transparent deck stains for deck surfaces and play structures, and latex paint for fences, tables, and other furniture. Reapply the coating when it shows signs of deterioration.
Choose fish wisely. Avoid fish high in mercury, such as king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish, orange roughy, and marlin. Limit consumption of tuna, especially steaks and canned ‘white’ albacore. Lower-mercury choices include wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, Atlantic herring, Dungeness crab, Pacific cod, Alaskan black cod, farmed striped bass, farmed catfish, clams, mussels, and Pacific oysters.
If you eat sport-caught fish, check for specific guidance on mercury levels in Washington water bodies or coastal waters. Fish and shellfish advisories are available from the Washington State Department of Health
Limiting mercury intake from fish is especially important for young children and women who are pregnant, nursing, or of child-bearing age.
You can find additional guidance on fish choices at the following websites:
Environmental Defense’s Oceans Alive: Best and Worst Seafood
Environmental Working Group: Mercury in Seafood (includes Tuna Calculator):
Fish are an excellent source of nutrients, including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D, and we encourage people to continue eating fish following these precautions.
Make sure medicines are free of toxic metals. Some home remedies, as well as drugs and cosmetics, can contain these metals. Look at ingredient lists, talk to your doctor, and avoid folk remedies and other medicines that contain arsenic or mercury.
Be cautious with mercury-containing products. When possible, choose products without mercury, such as digital thermostats and thermometers. Be careful not to break fluorescent light bulbs, mercury thermometers, or other household items containing liquid mercury. These products release harmful mercury vapors when broken. If they do break, use appropriate clean-up methods (see the EPA’s web site).
Check paints and art supplies. Avoid paints containing mercury compounds, which are still found in some paints as pigments. Information on some products containing mercury ingredients is available from the Household Products Database. Otherwise, ask the manufacturer.
Skip herbicides with arsenic. Avoid arsenic-containing herbicides, which have ingredients listed as monosodium methanearsonate (MSMA), calcium acid methanearsonate, or cacodylic acid.
Consider composite fillings. Consider choosing composite dental fillings rather than mercury-containing amalgam fillings.


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