Mercury: Major Issues in Environmental Health

Environ Health Perspect. 1993 Apr;100:31-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.9310031.


In the past, methylmercury compounds were manufactured as fungicides or appeared as unwanted byproducts of the chemical industry, but today the methylation of inorganic mercury in aquatic sediments and soils is the predominant if not the sole source of methylmercury. This form of mercury is bioaccumulated to a high degree in aquatic food chains to attain its highest concentrations in edible tissues in long-lived predatory fish living in both fresh and ocean waters. It is well absorbed from the diet and distributes within a few days to all tissues in the body. It crosses without hindrance the blood-brain and placental barriers to reach its principal target tissue, the brain. It is eliminated chiefly in the feces after conversion to inorganic mercury. The biological half-time of methylmercury in human tissues is about 50 days, but there is wide individual variation. Adult poisoning is characterized by focal damage to discrete anatomical areas of the brain such as the visual cortex and granule layer of the cerebellum. A latent period of weeks or months may ensue before the appearance of signs and symptoms of poisoning. The latter manifest themselves as paresthesia, ataxia, constriction of the visual fields, and hearing loss. The prenatal period is the most sensitive stage of the life cycle to methylmercury. Prenatally poisoned infants exhibit a range of effects from severe cerebral palsy to subtle developmental delays. Methylmercury is believed to inhibit those processes in the brain specially involved in development and growth such as neuronal cell division and migration.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Environmental Health*
  • Humans
  • Mercury Poisoning / etiology*
  • Mercury Poisoning / therapy
  • Methylmercury Compounds / pharmacokinetics
  • Methylmercury Compounds / poisoning*
  • Poisoning / therapy


  • Methylmercury Compounds