The role of environmental mercury, lead and pesticide exposure in development of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Neurotoxicology. 2009 Sep;30(5):761-5. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2009.07.010. Epub 2009 Jul 24.


Exposure to an environmental toxicant as a risk factor in the development of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was first hinted at (demonstrated) in the Chamorro indigenous people of Guam. During the 1950s and 1960s these indigenous people presented an extremely high incidence of ALS which was presumed to be associated with the consumption of flying fox and cycad seeds. No other strong association between ALS and environmental toxicants has since been reported, although circumstantial epidemiological evidence has implicated exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury, industrial solvents and pesticides especially organophosphates and certain occupations such as playing professional soccer. Given that only approximately 10% of all ALS diagnosis have a genetic basis, a gene-environmental interaction provides a plausible explanation for the other 90% of cases. This mini-review provides an overview of our current knowledge of environmental etiologies of ALS with emphasis on the effects of mercury, lead and pesticides as potential risk factors in developing ALS. Epidemiologic and experimental evidence from animal models investigating the possible association between exposure to environmental toxicant and ALS disease has proven inconclusive. Nonetheless, there are indications that there may be causal links, and a need for more research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / chemically induced*
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / epidemiology
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / genetics
  • Animals
  • Environmental Pollutants*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Lead / toxicity*
  • Mercury / toxicity*
  • Pesticides / toxicity*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Pesticides
  • Lead
  • Mercury