Mercury concentrations and metabolism in infants receiving vaccines containing thiomersal: a descriptive study

Lancet. 2002 Nov 30;360(9347):1737-41. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(02)11682-5.


Background: Thiomersal is a preservative containing small amounts of ethylmercury that is used in routine vaccines for infants and children. The effect of vaccines containing thiomersal on concentrations of mercury in infants' blood has not been extensively assessed, and the metabolism of ethylmercury in infants is unknown. We aimed to measure concentrations of mercury in blood, urine, and stools of infants who received such vaccines.

Methods: 40 full-term infants aged 6 months and younger were given vaccines that contained thiomersal (diptheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis vaccine, hepatitis B vaccine, and in some children Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine). 21 control infants received thiomersal-free vaccines. We obtained samples of blood, urine, and stools 3-28 days after vaccination. Total mercury (organic and inorganic) in the samples was measured by cold vapour atomic absorption.

Findings: Mean mercury doses in infants exposed to thiomersal were 45.6 microg (range 37.5-62.5) for 2-month-olds and 111.3 microg (range 87.5-175.0) for 6-month-olds. Blood mercury in thiomersal-exposed 2-month-olds ranged from less than 3.75 to 20.55 nmol/L (parts per billion); in 6-month-olds all values were lower than 7.50 nmol/L. Only one of 15 blood samples from controls contained quantifiable mercury. Concentrations of mercury were low in urine after vaccination but were high in stools of thiomersal-exposed 2-month-olds (mean 82 ng/g dry weight) and in 6-month-olds (mean 58 ng/g dry weight). Estimated blood half-life of ethylmercury was 7 days (95% CI 4-10 days).

Interpretation: Administration of vaccines containing thiomersal does not seem to raise blood concentrations of mercury above safe values in infants. Ethylmercury seems to be eliminated from blood rapidly via the stools after parenteral administration of thiomersal in vaccines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Half-Life
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Mercury / blood
  • Mercury / metabolism*
  • Mercury / pharmacokinetics
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / metabolism*
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / pharmacokinetics
  • Thimerosal / blood
  • Thimerosal / metabolism*
  • Thimerosal / pharmacokinetics
  • Vaccines*


  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical
  • Vaccines
  • Thimerosal
  • Mercury