Mercury pollution in modern times and its socio-medical consequences

Sci Total Environ. 2019 Mar 1;654:720-734. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.408. Epub 2018 Nov 2.


Mercury plays a critical role in serious health problems due to environmental or occupational exposures. Aquatic ecosystems are an essential component of the global biogeochemical cycle of mercury, as inorganic mercury can be converted to toxic methyl mercury in these environments and reemissions of elemental mercury rival anthropogenic mercury releases on a global scale. The history of the Minamata disease, a typical example of industrial pollution, has shown how corporate secrecy and ignorance on part of the health authorities may influence the devastating spread of environmental contamination and the progress of disease. While the Minamata Convention, in place since 2017, is aiming to lower mercury exposure and to prevent adverse effects, there are still knowledge gaps in the areas of global environmental mercury exposure. Areas of uncertainty in the global biogeochemical cycle of mercury include oxidation processes in the atmosphere, land-atmosphere and ocean-atmosphere cycling, and methylation processes in the ocean. Pollution related to climate change (especially in boreal and arctic regions), bioaccumulation and biomagnification of methyl mercury in the food chain, especially in fish and marine mammals, needs to be addressed in more detail. Information is lacking on numerous hidden contaminant exposures i.e. from globally applied traditional medicine, mercury containing skin creams and soaps, dental amalgam, ethyl mercury containing vaccines and latex paint additives, as well as on mercury releases from power plants, e-waste/fluorescent lamps, wildfire emissions, and global artisanal small-scale gold mining activities. Mercury occurs in various forms with different levels of toxicity. While much is already known and documented on the health effects of mercury, present knowledge and translation into preventive actions is still incomplete. Risks for long term health effects trough prolonged low dose exposure and trough cumulative exposures of various mercury forms should be further addressed. Preventive actions should include adequate human biomonitoring programs. Research data should be translated swiftly into management tools for local policy makers and health professionals, also paying attention at the major differences in mercury contamination across the globe.

Keywords: Environmental exposure; Health effects; Human biomonitoring; Mercury emissions; Mercury pollution; Methyl mercury; Noncommunicable disease; Occupational exposure.