Nutritional factors may modify the toxic action of methyl mercury in fish-eating populations

TW Clarkson, JJ Strain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Citations (Scopus)


The historical record of clinical cases of methyl mercury poisoning dates back to the 19th century when the first chemical synthesis occurred. The potent fungicidal properties of both methyl and the closely related ethyl mercury compound were subsequently discovered, which led to widespread agricultural application for prevention of fungal infection in seed grain. Several catastrophic outbreaks of poisoning occurred in the mid-20th century when the treated seed grain was mistakenly used to prepare homemade bread. The largest outbreak took place in rural Iraq in the early 1970s. Human poisonings also occurred in Japan due to the release of methyl mercury into bodies of fresh and ocean water. Them most infamous outbreak occurred in the area of Minamata Bay: methyl mercury, which was unwittingly discharged into the ocean water, avidly accumulated in the aquatic food chain to such an extent that people who consumed fish were severely poisoned. Today, human exposure to methyl mercury occurs from consumption of fish and sea mammals. Inorganic mercury that is present in aquatic sediments is methylated by microorganisms and accumulates in the aquatic food chain. Although no cases of clinical poisoning have been reported, a number of epidemiological studies have been carried out that raise the possibility of prenatal damage. Previous studies (especially the Iraq outbreak) indicate that the prenatal stage of the life cycle is the most vulnerable. However, ongoing epidemiological studies of heavy fish consumers of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean do not reveal adverse effects. To the contrary, the results of some developmental tests that were conducted on prenatally exposed children indicate beneficial outcomes that correlate with mercury levels during pregnancy. This article discusses the potential role of micronutrients in fish as a plausible explanation for these findings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1539S-1543S
JournalJournal of Nutrition
Issue number5, Sup
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - May 2003

Bibliographical note

11th International Symposium on Trace Elements in Man and Animals, BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA, JUN 02-06, 2002


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