The toxicology of mercury

Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 1997;34(4):369-403. doi: 10.3109/10408369708998098.


The major physical forms of mercury to which humans are exposed are mercury vapor, Hg0, and methylmercury compounds, Ch3HgX. Mercury vapor emitted from both natural and anthropogenic sources is globally distributed in the atmosphere. It is returned as a water-soluble form in precipitation and finds its way into bodies of fresh and ocean water. Land run-off also accounts for further input into lakes and oceans. Inorganic mercury, present in water sediments, is subject to bacterial conversion to methylmercury compounds that are bioaccumulated in the aquatic food chain to reach the highest concentration in predatory fish. Human exposure to mercury vapor is from dental amalgam and industries using mercury. Methylmercury compounds are found exclusively in seafood and freshwater fish. The health effects of mercury vapor have been known since ancient times. Severe exposure results in a triad of symptoms, erethism, tremor, and gingivitis. Today, we are concerned with more subtle effects such as preclinical changes in kidney function and behavioral and cognitive changes associated with effects on the central nervous system. Methylmercury is a neurological poison affecting primarily brain tissue. In adults, brain damage is focal affecting the function of such areas as the cerebellum (ataxia) and the visual cortex (constricted visual fields). Methylmercury also at high doses can cause severe damage to the developing brain. Today the chief concern is with the more subtle effects arising from prenatal exposure such as delayed development and cognitive changes in children.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • History, Modern 1601-
  • Humans
  • Mercury / chemistry*
  • Mercury / history
  • Mercury / toxicity*
  • Methylmercury Compounds / metabolism
  • Methylmercury Compounds / toxicity


  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Mercury