Mercury and lead during breast-feeding

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Abstract

Hg and Pb are of public health concern due to their toxic effects on vulnerable fetuses, persistence in pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, and widespread occurrence in the environment. To diminish maternal and infant exposure to Hg and Pb, it is necessary to establish guidelines based on an understanding of the environmental occurrence of these metals and the manner in which they reach the developing human organism. In the present review, environmental exposure, acquisition and storage of these metals via maternal–infant interaction are systematically presented. Though Hg and Pb are dispersed throughout the environment, the risk of exposure to infants is primarily influenced by maternal dietary habits, metal speciation and interaction with nutritional status. Hg and Pb possess similar adverse effects on the central nervous system, but they have environmental and metabolic differences that modulate their toxicity and neurobehavioural outcome in infant exposure during fetal development. Hg is mainly found in protein matrices of animal flesh (especially fish and shellfish), whereas Pb is mainly found in osseous structures. The potential of maternal acquisition is higher and lasts longer for Pb than for Hg. Pb stored in bone has a longer half-life than monomethyl-mercury acquired from fish. Both metals appear in breast milk as a fraction of the levels found in maternal blood supplied to the fetus during gestation. Habitual diets consumed by lactating mothers pose no health hazard to breast-fed infants. Instead, cows' milk-based formulas pose a greater risk of infant exposure to neurotoxic substances.

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