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J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2004;17(4):261-74.

The impact of long-term past exposure to elemental mercury on antioxidative capacity and lipid peroxidation in mercury miners.

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  • 1Idrija Mercury Mine, Idrija, Slovenia.


Limited information is available on the effects of chronic mercury exposure in relation to the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). It is known from in vitro and in vivo studies that Hg can promote lipid peroxidation through promotion of free radical generation, and interaction with antioxidative enzymes and reduction of bioavailable selenium. The objective of the study was to test the hypothesis that long-term past occupational exposure to elemental Hg (Hg0) can modify antioxidative capacity and promote lipid peroxidation in miners. The study population comprised 54 mercury miners and 58 workers as the control group. The miners were examined in the post-exposure period. We evaluated their previous exposure to Hg0, the putative appearance of certain nonspecific symptoms and signs of micromercurialism, as well as the main behavioural and biological risk factors for CVD, and determined: 1) Hg and Se levels in blood and urine, 2) antioxidative enzymes, Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase (CuZn-SOD), catalase (CAT), and selenoenzyme glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px) activity in erythrocytes as indirect indices of free radical activity, 3) pineal hormone melatonin (MEL) in blood and urine, and 4) lipid hydroperoxides (LOOHs) and malondialdehyde (MDA) as lipid peroxidation products. The mercury miners were intermittently exposed to Hg0 for periods of 7 to 31 years. The total number of exposure periods varied from 13 to 119. The cumulative U-Hg peak level varied from 794-11,365 microg/L. The current blood and urine Hg concentrations were practically on the same level in miners and controls. Miners showed some neurotoxic and nephrotoxic sequels of micromercurialism. No significant differences in behavioural and biological risk factors for CVD were found between miners and controls. A weak correlation (r = 0.36, p < 0.01) between systolic blood pressure and average past exposure U-Hg level was found. The mean P-Se in miners (71.4 microg/L) was significantly lower (p < 0.05) than in the controls (77.3 microg/L), while the mean U-Se tended to be higher (p < 0.05) in miners (16.5 microg/g creatinine) than in the controls (14.0 microg/g creatinine). Among antioxidative enzyme activities, only CAT in erythrocytes was significantly higher (p < 0.01) in miners (3.14 MU/g Hb) than in the controls (2.65 MU/g Hb). The mean concentration of B-MEL in miners (44.3 ng/L) was significantly higher (p < 0.01) than in the controls (14.9 ng/L). The mean value of U-MEL sulphate (31.8 microg/L) in miners was significantly lower (p < 0.01) than in the control group (46.9 microg/L). Among the observed lipid peroxidative products, the mean concentration of U-MDA was statistically higher (p < 0.01) in miners (0.21 micromol/mmol creatinine) than in the controls (0.17 micromol/mmol creatinine). In the group of miners with high mercury accumulation and the presence of some nonspecific symptoms and signs of micromercurialism, the results of our study partly support the assumption that long-term occupational exposure to Hg0 enhances the formation of free radicals even several years after termination of occupational exposure. Therefore, long-term occupational exposure to Hg0 could be one of the risk factors for increased lipid peroxidation and increased mortality due to ischaemic heart disease (ICH) found among the mercury miners of the Idrija Mine.

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