Identification and distribution of mercury species in rat tissues following administration of thimerosal or methylmercury

Arch Toxicol. 2010 Nov;84(11):891-6. doi: 10.1007/s00204-010-0538-4. Epub 2010 Apr 13.


Methylmercury (Met-Hg) is one the most toxic forms of Hg, with a considerable range of harmful effects on humans. Sodium ethyl mercury thiosalicylate, thimerosal (TM) is an ethylmercury (Et-Hg)-containing preservative that has been used in manufacturing vaccines in many countries. Whereas the behavior of Met-Hg in humans is relatively well known, that of ethylmercury (Et-Hg) is poorly understood. The present study describes the distribution of mercury as (-methyl, -ethyl and inorganic mercury) in rat tissues (brain, heart, kidney and liver) and blood following administration of TM or Met-Hg. Animals received one dose/day of Met-Hg or TM by gavage (0.5 mg Hg/kg). Blood samples were collected after 6, 12, 24, 48, 96 and 120 h of exposure. After 5 days, the animals were killed, and their tissues were collected. Total blood mercury (THg) levels were determined by ICP-MS, and methylmercury (Met-Hg), ethylmercury (Et-Hg) and inorganic mercury (Ino-Hg) levels were determined by speciation analysis with LC-ICP-MS. Mercury remains longer in the blood of rats treated with Met-Hg compared to that of TM-exposed rats. Moreover, after 48 h of the TM treatment, most of the Hg found in blood was inorganic. Of the total mercury found in the brain after TM exposure, 63% was in the form of Ino-Hg, with 13.5% as Et-Hg and 23.7% as Met-Hg. In general, mercury in tissues and blood following TM treatment was predominantly found as Ino-Hg, but a considerable amount of Et-Hg was also found in the liver and brain. Taken together, our data demonstrated that the toxicokinetics of TM is completely different from that of Met-Hg. Thus, Met-Hg is not an appropriate reference for assessing the risk from exposure to TM-derived Hg. It also adds new data for further studies in the evaluation of TM toxicity.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Kidney / metabolism
  • Liver
  • Male
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Mercury / analysis
  • Mercury / blood
  • Mercury / metabolism*
  • Methylmercury Compounds / pharmacokinetics*
  • Myocardium / metabolism
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / pharmacokinetics*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Thimerosal / pharmacokinetics*


  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical
  • Thimerosal
  • Mercury