Very low-level prenatal mercury exposure and behaviors in children: the HOME Study

Environ Health. 2019 Jan 9;18(1):4. doi: 10.1186/s12940-018-0443-5.


Background: Mercury is toxic to the developing brain, but the lowest concentration associated with the development of behavior problems is unclear. The purpose of this study was to examine the association between very low-level mercury exposure during fetal development and behavior problems in children.

Methods: We used data from 389 mothers and children in a prospective pregnancy and birth cohort study. We defined mean prenatal mercury concentration as the mean of total whole blood mercury concentrations in maternal samples collected at 16- and 26-weeks of gestation, delivery, and neonatal cord blood samples. We assessed parent-reported child behavior up to five times from two to 8 years of age using the Behavioral Assessment System for Children (BASC-2). At 8 years of age, we assessed self-reported child anxiety using the Spence Children's Anxiety Scale (SCAS). We used multiple linear mixed models and linear regression models to estimate the association between mean prenatal mercury concentrations and child behavior and anxiety, respectively.

Results: The median prenatal total blood mercury concentrations was 0.67 μg/L. Overall, we did not find statistically significant associations between mean prenatal mercury concentrations and behavior problems scores, but a 2-fold increase in mercury concentrations at 16-weeks gestation was associated with 0.83 point (95% CI: 0.05, 1.62) higher BASC-2 anxiety scores. Maternal and cord blood mercury concentrations at delivery were associated with parent-reported anxiety at 8 years.

Conclusion: We found limited evidence of an association between very-low level prenatal mercury exposure and behaviors in children, with an exception of anxiety.

Keywords: ADHD; Anxiety; BASC; Behavioral assessment system for children; Behaviors; Mercury; Methylmercury; Prenatal exposure; SCAS; Spence Children’s anxiety scale.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / drug effects*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange
  • Mercury / adverse effects*
  • Mercury / blood
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Mercury