500 years of mercury (Hg) mining in the town of Idrija has caused severe pollution in Idrija and its surroundings. Following the closure of the mine in 1995, the environment remains contaminated with Hg. Sources of elemental-, inorganic- and methyl Hg exposure were identified, potential environmental level of exposure to Hg was evaluated and actual internal exposure to Hg was assessed in selected susceptible population groups comprising school-age children and pregnant women living in Idrija and in control groups from rural and urban environments. The study of pregnant women (n=31) was conducted between 2003 and 2008, and the study of school-age children (n=176) in 2008. Potential interaction of Hg with selenium (Se) in plasma was assessed in both study populations, while in pregnant women antioxidative enzyme activity (glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase and catalase) in erythrocytes of maternal and cord blood was also assessed. Actual exposure to Hg as indicated by levels of Hg in children's blood (geometric mean (GM) 0.92µg/L), mother's blood (GM 1.86µg/L), children's urine (GM 1.08µg/g crea.), mother's urine (GM 2.51µg/L), children's hair (GM 241ng/g) and mother's hair (GM 251ng/g) was higher in the two study groups from Idrija than in the control groups from rural areas, but was still at the level of a "normal" population and reflects mainly exposure to elemental Hg (Hg°) from dental amalgam and, to a certain extent atmospheric Hg°. Furthermore, the internal doses of Hg received during pregnancy did not decrease the bioavailability of Se. Based on observation in children, the increase in Se protein expression is suggested to be a consequence of moderately elevated exposure to Hg°. The observed changes in activity of antioxidative enzymes, as biomarkers of oxidative stress, appear to be mainly associated with pregnancy per se and not with an increased exposure to Hg. In view of the continuing increased potential for Hg exposure and the low number of pregnant women studied, the results warrant a further longitudinal study of a larger group of pregnant women residing in the area of the former mercury mine.
Keywords: antioxidative enzymes; former mercury mine; mercury exposure; mercury intake/retention; selenium; susceptible population.
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