Mercury in human brain, blood, muscle and toenails in relation to exposure: an autopsy study
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Background: The main forms of mercury (Hg) exposure in the general population are methylmercury (MeHg) from seafood, inorganic mercury (I-Hg) from food, and mercury vapor (Hg0) from dental amalgam restorations. While the distribution of MeHg in the body is described by a one compartment model, the distribution of I-Hg after exposure to elemental mercury is more complex, and there is no biomarker for I-Hg in the brain. The aim of this study was to elucidate the relationships between on the one hand MeHg and I-Hg in human brain and other tissues, including blood, and on the other Hg exposure via dental amalgam in a fish-eating population. In addition, the use of blood and toenails as biological indicator media for inorganic and organic mercury (MeHg) in the tissues was evaluated. Methods: Samples of blood, brain (occipital lobe cortex), pituitary, thyroid, abdominal muscle and toenails were collected at autopsy of 30 deceased individuals, age from 47 to 91 years of age. Concentrations of total-Hg and I-Hg in blood and brain cortex were determined by cold vapor atomic fluorescence spectrometry and total-Hg in other tissues by sector field inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-SFMS). Results: The median concentrations of MeHg (total-Hg minus I-Hg) and I-Hg in blood were 2.2 and 1.0 μg/L, and in occipital lobe cortex 4 and 5 μg/kg, respectively. There was a significant correlation between MeHg in blood and occipital cortex. Also, total-Hg in toenails correlated with MeHg in both blood and occipital lobe. I-Hg in both blood and occipital cortex, as well as total-Hg in pituitary and thyroid were strongly associated with the number of dental amalgam surfaces at the time of death. Conclusion: In a fish-eating population, intake of MeHg via the diet has a marked impact on the MeHg concentration in the brain, while exposure to dental amalgam restorations increases the I-Hg concentrations in the brain. Discrimination between mercury species is necessary to evaluate the impact on Hg in the brain of various sources of exposure, in particular, dental amalgam exposure.