Evolution of our understanding of methylmercury as a health threat

Environ Health Perspect. 1996 Apr;104 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):367-79. doi: 10.1289/ehp.96104s2367.


Methylmercury (MeHg) is recognized as one of the most hazardous environmental pollutants, primarily due to endemic disasters that have occurred repeatedly. A review of the earlier literature on the Minamata outbreak shows how large-scale poisoning occurred and why it could not be prevented. With the repeated occurrences of MeHg poisoning, it gradually became clear that the fetus is much more susceptible to the toxicity of this compound than the adult. Thus, recent epidemiologic studies in several fish-eating populations have focused on the effects of in utero exposure to MeHg. Also, there have been many studies on neurobehavioral effects of in utero exposure to methylmercury in rodents and nonhuman primates. The results of these studies revealed that the effects encompass a wide range of behavioral categories without clear identification of the functional categories distinctively susceptible to MeHg. The overall neurotoxicity of MeHg in humans, nonhuman primates, and rodents appears to have similarities. However, several gaps exist between the human and animal studies. By using the large body of neurotoxicologic data obtained in human populations and filling in such gaps, we can use MeHg as a model agent for developing a specific battery of tests of animal behavior to predict human risks resulting from in utero exposure to other chemicals with unknown neurotoxicity. Approaches developing such a battery are also discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Environmental Health*
  • Environmental Pollutants / poisoning*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Japan / epidemiology
  • Mercury Poisoning / epidemiology
  • Mercury Poisoning / etiology
  • Methylmercury Compounds / poisoning*
  • Neurotoxins / poisoning*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Neurotoxins