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Keywords:

  • mercury exposure;
  • systemic toxicity;
  • immunotoxicity;
  • health risk assessment;
  • management

Abstract

Mercury is a toxic and hazardous metal that occurs naturally in the earth's crust. Natural phenomena such as erosion and volcanic eruptions, and anthropogenic activities like metal smelting and industrial production and use may lead to substantial contamination of the environment with mercury. Through consumption of mercury in food, the populations of many areas, particularly in the developing world, have been confronted with catastrophic outbreaks of mercury-induced diseases and mortality. Countries such as Japan, Iraq, Ghana, the Seychelles, and the Faroe Islands have faced such epidemics, which have unraveled the insidious and debilitating nature of mercury poisoning. Its creeping neurotoxicity is highly devastating, particularly in the central and peripheral nervous systems of children. Central nervous system defects and erethism as well as arrythmias, cardiomyopathies, and kidney damage have been associated with mercury exposure. Necrotizing bronchitis and pneumonitis arising from inhalation of mercury vapor can result in respiratory failure. Mercury is also considered a potent immunostimulant and -suppressant, depending on exposure dose and individual susceptibility, producing a number of pathologic sequelae including lymphoproliferation, hypergammaglobulinemia, and total systemic hyper- and hyporeactivities. In this review we discuss the sources of mercury and the potential for human exposure; its biogeochemical cycling in the environment; its systemic, immunotoxic, genotoxic/carcinogenic, and teratogenic health effects; and the dietary influences on its toxicity; as well as the important considerations in risk assessment and management of mercury poisoning. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Environ Toxicol 18: 149–175, 2003.