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Mercury Poisoning in Hong Kong: What to watch out for

Fish lovers of Hong Kong heed this message: Steer clear of tuna! The South China Morning Post has reported that within a period of 5 days there have been two separate instances of contaminated tuna entering Hong Kong from Japan. As is a concern with many varieties of fish worldwide, mercury contamination was responsible for these alarm bells sounding.

Now the city’s Centre for Food Safety is investigating the toxic tuna to try to make sure that more doesn’t find its way to the Hong Kong public at large. For those of us that appreciate some succulent tuna sushi on a regular basis, the prospect of mercury contamination should be a worry. Why is this, though? What are the dangers of mercury poisoning and how can we avoid it? Here, Pacific Prime delves into these issues and more.

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Mercury dangers

Mercury is commonly found in humans. In fact, mercury is so common around the globe that 40% of adults and 60% of children are said to have mercury in their body over World Health Organization recommended levels. Beyond ingesting mercury that is found in fish and shellfish (especially predatory fish), other sources of the element include cosmetic creams, vapor from liquid mercury found in thermometers and other types of manufactured equipment, or tainted herbs that are commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Once mercury enters the body, it can stay within it for 2 ½ months, and, while mercury can be gradually expelled from the body, its effects can be permanent. If enough buildup of the harmful liquid metal occurs, it can have a number of ill effects on our bodies. Immediate and acute symptoms include:

  • Renal damage
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

In addition to these, a high enough level of mercury in the body can lead to death.

A more long-term and chronic exposure to mercury can lead to a host of other problems, including:

  • Oedema (Fluid buildup) in the legs or ankles
  • Kidney damage
  • Behavioral/emotional changes
  • Hand tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of memory
  • Decrease in senses (taste, hearing, sight, touch)
  • Numbness
  • Fatigue
  • Twitching
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Headaches
  • Impaired cognitive function

Shielding yourself from mercury

As you can see from the extensive list of ailments above, mercury poisoning is a serious condition that can have a lifelong impact. This is why it’s so important for governments at large to identify tainted products before they reach the public, and also why each individual should be aware of how they can protect themselves from mercury exposure.

What is problematic for individuals is that it is difficult to know if you have mercury poisoning, especially so since the symptoms can be subtle and may take a long time to develop. Fortunately, if mercury is the problem, it will show up in a routine blood test.

Parents will no doubt want to be especially knowledgeable of mercury poisoning, as children are more susceptible to mercury poisoning than adults. Mercury can even be passed to unborn children from the mother while in the womb, or to infants through breast milk. When eating, keep in mind that all fish contain small amounts of mercury, most of which has a negligible effect on our bodies. Of course, with the additional worries for children when it comes to mercury, women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children should all avoid eating fish and shellfish that may have a high mercury content, and limit eating fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury content.

In order to prevent mercury poisoning at home, do an online search for common household items that might contain mercury so you can be aware of possible sources in your vicinity. These include items like thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, some disinfectants, and more.

Fish that are high in mercury include swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and more. Fish that would be counted on the list of lower-mercury fish include catfish, Pollock, salmon, canned light tuna and shrimp. Finding the right balance and proper variety of fish to include in one’s diet is important, as fish is an excellent source of protein and nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids that support heart health, as well as children’s growth and development.

Outside of these guidelines, be sure to check local advisories regarding tainted food wherever you find yourself. In Hong Kong, the Centre for Food Safety has a page with ‘Food Alerts’ to notify the public of any dangerous food found in the city.

Treatment for acute mercury poisoning varies depending on the source of the contamination. If, for example, a person swallows a battery, generally surgery will be performed to extract it. Meanwhile, inhalation of mercury vapor may require intubation and bronchodilators for treatment. Of course, the first step is always to remove the patient from the source of contamination, so this should be focused on first, but after that it is best to consult medical professionals on the best course of treatment, as there is no reliable method for treating mercury poisoning at home.

Finally, mercury poisoning is a somewhat unusual problem to have, and the particulars of each case may necessitate a variety of different tests and treatments. That’s why it’s so important to have a quality, comprehensive health insurance plan, costs for treatment can be quite high (especially in Hong Kong, where treatment in private hospitals can be quite pricey), so feel free to contact us today and find out more about plans that provide coverage for the treatment of mercury poisoning, or any other conditions you need to be covered for. Our experienced agents are standing by to answer all of your questions and provide you with a free quote.

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Jess Lindeman

Content Strategist at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime.

When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.
Jess Lindeman