In utero exposure to mercury and childhood overweight or obesity: counteracting effect of maternal folate status

BMC Med. 2019 Nov 28;17(1):216. doi: 10.1186/s12916-019-1442-2.


Background: Low-dose mercury (Hg) exposure has been associated with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity in adults, but it is unknown the metabolic consequence of in utero Hg exposure. This study aimed to investigate the association between in utero Hg exposure and child overweight or obesity (OWO) and to explore if adequate maternal folate can mitigate Hg toxicity.

Methods: This prospective study included 1442 mother-child pairs recruited at birth and followed up to age 15 years. Maternal Hg in red blood cells and plasma folate levels were measured in samples collected 1-3 days after delivery (a proxy for third trimester exposure). Adequate folate was defined as plasma folate ≥ 20.4 nmol/L. Childhood OWO was defined as body mass index ≥ 85% percentile for age and sex.

Results: The median (interquartile range) of maternal Hg levels were 2.11 (1.04-3.70) μg/L. Geometric mean (95% CI) of maternal folate levels were 31.1 (30.1-32.1) nmol/L. Maternal Hg levels were positively associated with child OWO from age 2-15 years, independent of maternal pre-pregnancy OWO, diabetes, and other covariates. The relative risk (RR = 1.24, 95% CI 1.05-1.47) of child OWO associated with the highest quartile of Hg exposure was 24% higher than those with the lowest quartile. Maternal pre-pregnancy OWO and/or diabetes additively enhanced Hg toxicity. The highest risk of child OWO was found among children of OWO and diabetic mothers in the top Hg quartile (RR = 2.06; 95% CI 1.56-2.71) compared to their counterparts. Furthermore, adequate maternal folate status mitigated Hg toxicity. Given top quartile Hg exposure, adequate maternal folate was associated with a 34% reduction in child OWO risk (RR = 0.66, 95% CI 0.51-0.85) as compared with insufficient maternal folate. There was a suggestive interaction between maternal Hg and folate levels on child OWO risk (p for interaction = 0.086).

Conclusions: In this US urban, multi-ethnic population, elevated in utero Hg exposure was associated with a higher risk of OWO in childhood, and such risk was enhanced by maternal OWO and/or diabetes and reduced by adequate maternal folate. These findings underscore the need to screen for Hg and to optimize maternal folate status, especially among mothers with OWO and/or diabetes.

Keywords: Diabetes; Folate; In utero; Mercury; Metal; Nutrient; Obesity; Overweight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Folic Acid
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Mercury / adverse effects*
  • Pediatric Obesity / chemically induced*
  • Pediatric Obesity / epidemiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, Third
  • Prospective Studies


  • Folic Acid
  • Mercury