Surveillance of workers exposed to mercury vapour:validation of a previously proposed biological threshold limit value for mercury concentration in urine

Am J Ind Med. 1985;7(1):45-71. doi: 10.1002/ajim.4700070106.


A cross-sectional epidemiological study was carried out among subjects exposed to mercury (Hg) vapour, ie, a group of 131 male workers (mean age: 30.9 yr; average duration of exposure, 4.8 yr) and a group of 54 female workers (mean age, 29.9 yr; average duration of exposure 7 yr). The results were compared with those obtained in well-matched control groups comprising 114 and 48 male and female workers, respectively. The intensity of current Hg vapour exposure was rather moderate as reflected by the levels of mercury in urine (HgU) (mean and 95th percentile: males 52 and 147 micrograms/g creatinine; females 37 and 63 micrograms/g creatinine) and of mercury in blood (mean and 95th percentile: males 1.4 and 3.7 micrograms/dl; females 0.9 and 1.4 microgram/dl). Several symptoms mainly related to the central nervous system (memory disturbances, depressive feelings, fatigue, irritability) were more prevalent in the Hg-exposed subjects. They were, however, not related to exposure parameters. In both male and female Hg-exposed workers no significant disturbances were found in short-term memory (audioverbal), simple reaction time (visual), critical flicker fusion, and colour discrimination ability. Only slight renal tubular effects were detected in Hg-exposed males and females, ie, an increased urinary beta-galactosidase activity and an increased urinary excretion of retinol-binding protein. The prevalence of these preclinical renal effects was more related to the current exposure intensity (HgU) than to the duration of exposure and was detected mainly when HgU exceeds 50 micrograms/g creatinine. Changes in hand tremor spectrum recorded with an accelerometer were found in the Hg-exposed males only. The prevalence of abnormal values for some hand tremor parameters (total velocity and total displacement in the 2-50-Hz band) was mainly increased in male workers exposed for more than 10 yr. Unlike the renal tubular effects, the preclinical signs of tremor were more related to the integrated exposure than to the current exposure. Since the female workers, who have been exposed to Hg vapour levels usually insufficient to increase their HgU levels above 50 micrograms/g creatinine, did not exhibit any change in hand tremor pattern, the results of the present study tend to validate our previously proposed biological threshold limit value of a HgU of 50 micrograms/g creatinine for workers chronically exposed to mercury vapour.

MeSH terms

  • Belgium
  • Color Perception / drug effects
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Flicker Fusion / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Kidney / drug effects
  • Kidney Function Tests
  • Male
  • Maximum Allowable Concentration
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects
  • Mercury / urine*
  • Mercury Poisoning / etiology*
  • Mercury Poisoning / prevention & control
  • Occupational Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Occupational Diseases / prevention & control
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Reaction Time / drug effects
  • Tremor / chemically induced


  • Mercury