Mercury exposure in children: a review


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Abstract

Exposure to toxic mercury (Hg) is a growing health hazard throughout the world today. Recent studies show that mercury exposure may occur in the environment, and increasingly in occupational and domestic settings. Children are particularly vulnerable to Hg intoxication, which may lead to impairment of the developing central nervous system, as well as pulmonary and nephrotic damage. Several sources of toxic Hg exposure in children have been reported in biomedical literature: (1) methylmercury, the most widespread source of Hg exposure, is most commonly the result of consumption of contaminated foods, primarily fish; (2) ethylmercury, which has been the subject of recent scientific inquiry in relation to the controversial pediatric vaccine preservative thimerosal; (3) elemental Hg vapor exposure through accidents and occupational and ritualistic practices; (4) inorganic Hg through the use of topical Hg-based skin creams and in infant teething powders; (5) metallic Hg in dental amalgams, which release Hg vapors, and Hg2+ in tissues. This review examines recent epidemiological studies of methylmercury exposure in children. Reports of elemental Hg vapor exposure in children through accidents and occupational practices, and the more recent observations of the increasing use of elemental Hg for magico-religious purposes in urban communities are also discussed. Studies of inorganic Hg exposure from the widespread use of topical beauty creams and teething powders, and fetal/neonatal Hg exposure from maternal dental amalgam fillings are reviewed. Considerable attention was given in this review to pediatric methylmercury exposure and neurodevelopment because it is the most thoroughly investigated Hg species. Each source of Hg exposure is reviewed in relation to specific pediatric health effects, particularly subtle neurodevelopmental disorders.

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