• heavy metals;
  • mercury;
  • autoimmunity

The heavy metal mercury is ubiquitously distributed in the environment resulting in permanent low-level exposure in human populations. Mercury can be encountered in three main chemical forms (elemental, inorganic, and organic) which can affect the immune system in different ways. In this review, we describe the effects of these various forms of mercury exposure on immune cells in humans and animals. In genetically susceptible mice or rats, subtoxic doses of mercury induce the production of highly specific autoantibodies as well as a generalized activation of the immune system. We review studies performed in this model and discuss their implications for the role of environmental chemicals in human autoimmunity.