Inorganic mercury may aggravate murine systemic autoimmune diseases which are either spontaneous (genetically determined) or induced by non-genetic mechanisms. Organic mercury species, the dominating form of mercury exposure in the human population, have not been examined in this respect. Therefore, ethyl mercury in the form of thimerosal, a preservative recently debated as a possible health hazard when present in vaccines, was administered in a dose of 0.156-5 mg/L drinking water to female (NZB x NZW)F1 (ZBWF1) mice. These mice develop an age-dependent spontaneous systemic autoimmune disease with high mortality primarily due to immune-complex (IC) glomerulonephritis. Five mg thimerosal/L drinking water (295 microg Hg/kg body weight (bw)/day) for 7 weeks induced glomerular, mesangial and systemic vessel wall IC deposits and antinuclear antibodies (ANA) which were not present in the untreated controls. After 22-25 weeks, the higher doses of thimerosal had shifted the localization of the spontaneously developing renal glomerular IC deposits from the capillary wall position seen in controls to the mesangium. The altered localization was associated with less severe histological kidney damage, less proteinuria, and reduced mortality. The effect was dose-dependent, lower doses having no effect compared with the untreated controls. A different effect of thimerosal treatment was induction of renal and splenic vessel walls IC deposits. Renal vessel wall deposits occurred at a dose of 0.313-5 mg thimerosal/L (18-295 microg Hg/kg bw/day), while splenic vessel wall deposits developed also in mice given the lowest dose of thimerosal, 0.156 mg/L (9 microg Hg/kg bw/day). The latter dose is 3- and 15-fold lower than the dose of Hg required to induce vessel wall IC deposits in genetically susceptible H-2s mice by HgCl2 and thimerosal, respectively. Further studies on the exact conditions needed for induction of systemic IC deposits by low-dose organic mercurials in autoimmune-prone individuals, as well as the potential effect of these deposits on the vessel walls, are warranted.