The extent of mercury (Hg) exposure among Saudi mothers and their respective infants

Environ Monit Assess. 2015 Nov;187(11):678. doi: 10.1007/s10661-015-4858-y. Epub 2015 Oct 8.


A total of 1016 healthy Saudi mothers and their respective infants (aged 3-12 months) were recruited from 57 Primary Health Care Centers (PHCCs) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to evaluate the extent of mercury (Hg) exposure and predict its sources in the healthy Saudi population. Total Hg levels were measured in maternal urine, breast milk, blood, and hair and in the infants' urine and hair. Only 1.9% of the mothers had urinary Hg (UHg)>10 μg/l, the limit for asymptomatic adults recommended by the World Health Organization, but the median (0.99 μg/l) was higher than in other countries. Also, 49.3% of the mothers had UHg>1 μg/l, the German reference value for adults. Median infant UHg was 0.729 μg/l, and 77 and 93 % of the infants had levels higher than 0.4 and 0.1 μg/l, the reference values of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and for Germany, respectively. The median Hg level in breast milk was 0.884 μg/l. Even though 43.2% of the milk samples were above the background level for Hg in human milk (1 μg/l), our results were lower than those reported from other countries. Median maternal total Hg in blood was 0.637 μg/l, and only 0.4 and 6.9% of samples were higher than the Hg reference levels of 5.8 μg/l of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and of 2 μg/l for Germany, respectively. Total Hg levels in hair (HHg) varied widely among mothers and infants, but only 3.9% of the mothers and 2.8% of the infants had HHg>1 μg/g (the EPA reference level). Median HHg values were 0.117 μg/g dry weight in mothers and 0.1 μg/g dry weight in infants; both were lower than in other countries. The Hg levels in mothers and their respective infants were relatively low, but our results were consistent with other studies indicating that dental amalgam fillings and fish consumption were the main predictors of maternal Hg exposure. Among the several biomarkers of Hg exposure, Hg levels in maternal hair and urine were the strongest predictors of infant exposure. The lack of an association between Hg in breast milk and Hg in infant urine and hair suggested that the infants were exposed to Hg predominately during pregnancy rather than during breastfeeding. We expect that our data can serve as a baseline for further biomonitoring and follow-up studies, particularly of the long-term impact of Hg on childhood neurodevelopment.

Keywords: Blood; Breast milk; Hair; Infants; Mercury; Mothers; Saudi Arabia; Urine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Breast Feeding
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Female
  • Fishes
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Mercury / analysis
  • Mercury / metabolism*
  • Milk, Human / chemistry
  • Mothers
  • Pregnancy
  • Reference Values
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United States
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency


  • Biomarkers
  • Mercury