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Ther Drug Monit. 2009 Dec;31(6):670-82. doi: 10.1097/FTD.0b013e3181bb0ea1.

Defining a lowest observable adverse effect hair concentrations of mercury for neurodevelopmental effects of prenatal methylmercury exposure through maternal fish consumption: a systematic review.

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Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, Ontario, Canada.



Methylmercury is an environmental pollutant that can cause irreversible effects on the development of children. Although there is no doubt that high exposure can cause neurodevelopmental deficits, the threshold that will adversely affect the developing fetus is not well defined. Our objective was to systematically review the evidence of neurodevelopmental risks of methylmercury to the unborn child from maternal fish consumption to define the lowest observable adverse effect hair concentration (LOAEHC).


A systematic review was conducted of all original research reporting on the effects of methylmercury on the human fetus. A literature search was undertaken using SCOPUS, Medline-Ovid, PubMed, Google Scholar, and EMBASE. Papers were selected based on the following inclusion criteria: 1) child neurodevelopmental outcome; 2) comparison groups; and 3) methylmercury exposure through fish consumption.


Forty-eight publications met these inclusion criteria. Thirty articles reported on longitudinal studies and 18 were cross-sectional studies. Variations in study design precluded formal meta-analysis. Based on an evaluation of these studies, we defined the LOAEHC at 0.3 microg/g of maternal hair mercury. The longitudinal studies yielded a LOAEHC of 0.5 microg/g.


In the clinical context, the majority of pregnant women consume mercury-containing fish in amounts that are lower than the LOAEHC defined in this study. However, the LOAEHC is in the same order of magnitude of mercury exposure that occurs in significant numbers of women. Hence, although it appears safe to suggest that eating the recommended types and amounts of fish poses no measurable risks for neurodevelopmental deficits, analysis of hair mercury content before pregnancy might be suggested because dietary modification can decrease body content and risk.

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