Chemical Element: mercury

(Latin: named for the Roman god Mercurius; the symbol is from Latin hydrargyrum, "liquid silver"; liquid metal)

mercuric (adjective) (not comparable)
Pertaining to something which contains mercury and having two valencies: When Carl Wilhelm Scheele heated mercuric oxide and nitrates in 1771, he produced oxygen but his disclosure was not published until 1777.
mercurous (adjective) (not comparable)
Concerning mercury with an oxidation of 1, or monovalent mercury: Mercurous chloride is used on rare occasions as an intestinal antiseptic and to reduce the immoderate amount of watery fluid in cells and it is occasionally employed in salves for antibacterial use.
mercury (s) (noun), mercuries (pl)
1. A heavy metallic element that is silver-white and poisonous: Mercury, also termed "quicksilver" and is liquid at ordinary temperatures, is normally used in scientific instruments, in batteries, and in dental amalgam.
2. A Roman god: Mercury, a diety of Rome, served as a bearer of news and messages to other gods, and is also known for eloquence, travel, cunning, theft, and commerce.

Chemical-Element Information

Symbol: Hg
Atomic number: 80
Year discovered: Prehistoric; known since ancient times

Discovered by: Unknown

  • The term mercurius was first employed about the 6th century by alchemists who used the symbol for the planet Mercury to represent the metal, which because of its mobile form and its color, was called "quicksilver".
  • Mercury was known to ancient Chinese and Hindus before 2000 B.C. and was found in tubes in Egyptian tombs dated from 1500 B.C.
  • It is the only common metal that is liquid at ordinary temperatures.
  • Mercury is a heavy, silvery-white metal; a rather poor conductor of heat, as compared with other metals, and a fair conductor of electricity.
  • It easily forms alloys with many metals, such as gold, silver, and tin, and these alloys are called amalgams.
  • Amalgams are used extensively in dentistry for fillings.
  • Its ease in amalgamating with gold is made use of in the recovery of gold from its ores.
  • The most important salts are mercuric chloride (corrosive sublimate—a violent poison), mercurous chloride (calomel, occasionally still used in medicine), mercury fulminate (a detonator used in explosives), and mercuric sulphide (vermillion, a high-grade paint pigment).
  • Organic mercury compounds are important—and dangerous.
  • Methyl mercury is a lethal pollutant found in rivers and lakes.
  • The main source of pollution is industrial wastes settling to the river and lake bottoms.
  • Mercury is a virulent poison and is readily absorbed through the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal tract, or through unbroken skin.
  • It acts as a cumulative poison since there are few pathways available to the body for its excretion.
  • Since mercury is a very volatile element, dangerous levels are readily attained in air.
  • Air saturated with mercury vapor at 20 degrees Centigrade contains a concentration that exceeds the toxic limit many times.
  • The danger increases at higher temperatures; so It is therefore important that mercury be handled with care.
  • Containers of mercury should be securely covered and spillage should be avoided.
  • Mercury should only be handled in a well-ventilated area.
  • If you are in possession of any mercury you are advised to take it to a properly qualified chemist for its safe disposal.
  • The appearance of mercury is well known because of its use in many thermometers.
  • It was common to demonstrate the formation of mercury in the laboratory by heating mercury sulphide, but this is strongly discouraged today because of the toxicity of mercury vapors.
  • Despite its dangers, this method forms the basis of commercial extraction.
  • Prepared cinnabar ore is heated in a current of air and the mercury vapor is condensed.
  • In an article titled, “Mercury thermometers are falling out of favor” written by Traci Watson in the Thursday, April 1, 1999, issue of USA TODAY, the dangers of mercury were presented.
  • Local and state officials in the U.S. are on a campaign to get people to switch to something else other than mercury thermometers.
  • The bureaucrats say the ubiquitous device relies on one of the world’s most toxic elements, packaged in an easily shattered container.
  • “Dangerous it may be, but the mercury thermometer is a wonderfully precise tool, thanks to mercury’s sensitivity to temperature and the fact that it doesn’t stick to glass.”
  • Mercury was first used in a thermometer in 1714, but it took British physician Sir Thomas Allbutt to make the mercury thermometer a useful medical tool.
  • “His 1866 invention of the modern clinical thermometer replaced a foot-long model that required 20 minutes to determine a patient’s temperature.”
  • “Today’s thermometer contains only a smidgen of mercury, roughly 0.02 ounces.”
  • Every year there are 5.7 million thermometers sold every year in the U.S. and Becton Dickinson, one of the largest makers of mercury thermometers, estimates that those thermometers could contribute as much as several tons of mercury to the environment every year.
  • The problem is toxicity because mercury’s vapor is lethal when inhaled in concentrated amounts.
  • Mercury can damage the nervous systems of people who eat large amounts of mercury-tainted fish and can lead to birth defects if pregnant women eat such fish.
  • There are many ways for mercury to escape; such as, when a thermometer breaks, many people wash the spilled mercury down the drain and into the sewer system, from which it can get into water system.
  • Throwing a mercury into the trash is a bad idea, too, because garbage may be incinerated, sending the mercury into the atmosphere; where it can fall with rain.
  • Now, faced with mercury warnings about local fish poisoning and with high levels of mercury in wastewater plants, some U.S. officials are taking action by trying to replace mercury thermometers with digital models.

Name in other languages:

French: mercure

German: Quecksilber

Italian: mercurio

Spanish: mercurio

Information about other elements may be seen at this Chemical Elements List.

A special unit about words that include chemo-, chem- may be seen here.