Health Impacts and Biomarkers of Prenatal Exposure to Methylmercury: Lessons from Minamata, Japan

Toxics. 2018 Aug 3;6(3):45. doi: 10.3390/toxics6030045.


The main chemical forms of mercury are elemental mercury, inorganic divalent mercury, and methylmercury, which are metabolized in different ways and have differing toxic effects in humans. Among the various chemical forms of mercury, methylmercury is known to be particularly neurotoxic, and was identified as the cause of Minamata disease. It bioaccumulates in fish and shellfish via aquatic food webs, and fish and sea mammals at high trophic levels exhibit high mercury concentrations. Most human methylmercury exposure occurs through seafood consumption. Methylmercury easily penetrates the blood-brain barrier and so can affect the nervous system. Fetuses are known to be at particularly high risk of methylmercury exposure. In this review, we summarize the health effects and exposure assessment of methylmercury as follows: (1) methylmercury toxicity, (2) history and background of Minamata disease, (3) methylmercury pollution in the Minamata area according to analyses of preserved umbilical cords, (4) changes in the sex ratio in Minamata area, (5) neuropathology in fetuses, (6) kinetics of methylmercury in fetuses, (7) exposure assessment in fetuses.

Keywords: exposure assessment; fetus; kinetics; methylmercury; toxicity.