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Sci Total Environ. 2009 Dec 20;408(2):171-82. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.09.043. Epub 2009 Oct 21.

Is low-level environmental mercury exposure of concern to human health?

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Institute of Environment and Health, Cranfield Health, First Floor Building 63, Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, MK43 0AL, UK.


Mercury has long been recognised as toxic, principally in relation to its effects on humans following acute or prolonged high-level occupational exposures and, in the latter half of the last century, from a number of environmental incidents. Recognised target organs are the kidneys, central nervous system and thyroid glands. Recently concern has grown about the potential risks to the human population from current background environmental levels, leading bodies such as the World Health Organisation to call for the reduction or, wherever possible, elimination of the use of mercury. This review considers the strength of the epidemiological evidence on the effects of prolonged low-level exposure to the various forms of mercury. The limited research base suggests that several of the potential targets of long-term environmental exposure to mercury are similar to those occurring from occupational exposure including the renal, cardiovascular and immune systems. However, the evidence also suggests that, particularly in the case of organic mercury compounds, the most sensitive endpoint is central nervous system toxicity, especially in relation to exposure during the in utero period and childhood. It also appears that those human populations which have traditionally consumed diets high in seafoods are at greatest risk. While the extent of risk to the general population that may arise from existing environmental exposure levels appears limited, this conclusion is based on an incomplete dataset and therefore the general consensus view that exposure to mercury in its various forms should be minimised where practical, appears to be justified. A number of potential areas of further research are suggested as being pre-requisite to the development of a more rigorous risk assessment.

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