Data now suggest mercury effects might occur at levels lower than anyone suspected. Some studies show that children who were exposed to tiny amounts of mercury in utero have slower reflexes, language deficits, and shortened attention spans.
In adults, recent studies show a possible link between heart disease and mercury ingested from eating fish. Other groups claim mercury exposure is responsible for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and the escalating rate of autism.
How—and in what form—mercury inflicts damage is still unclear. Yet scientists and policymakers agree that more regulation is imperative. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to finalize its controversial first rule on reducing mercury emissions from power plants this month, and delegates from the United Nations Environment Programme met in late February to discuss an international convention limiting mercury use and emissions.
A decade ago researchers and lawmakers agreed that lead, another heavy metal, was harmful to children at levels one-sixth as high as previously recognized. But it took scientists decades to establish the scope and subtlety of lead poisoning. Mercury is now a ubiquitous contaminant. The average American may have several micrograms of it in each liter of blood, and the atmospheric burden of mercury has perhaps tripled since the industrial age. Whatever needs to be done to protect humanity from its love affair with quicksilver, it had better happen soon.
In August 1996 Karen Wetterhahn, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, spilled a few drops of a laboratory compound called dimethyl mercury onto one of her hands. She was wearing latex lab gloves, so she didn’t think much of it. A colleague saw her at a conference the following November. “She said she thought she was coming down with the flu,” says toxicologist Vas Aposhian of the University of Arizona. By the time Wetterhahn was diagnosed with mercury poisoning, in January, it was too late. Despite subsequent treatment that helped clear the metal from her body, she lapsed into a vegetative state in February and died the following June.
Scientists are at a loss to explain why mercury often takes months to exert its effects. “If we knew that, we’d know a lot more about how mercury poisons the brain,” says Tom Clarkson, a toxicologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
The degree of mercury’s toxicity depends on the form and route of exposure. You can swallow the liquid form of elemental mercury without much fear because it doesn’t easily penetrate the lining of the stomach and intestines. On the other hand, liquid mercury vaporizes at room temperature, and when you inhale the vapor it moves right from the lungs to the bloodstream to the brain. A broken thermometer can release enough mercury vapor to poison the air in a room—one reason why some cities and several states discourage the sale of mercury fever thermometers.
Mercury also binds with other elements in salts and organic compounds of varying toxicity. Dimethyl mercury, the substance that poisoned the Dartmouth chemist, is a synthetic form of organic mercury rarely found outside a lab. A simpler organic compound called methylmercury is of greater concern because methyl- mercury is the form found in the flesh of fish.
Seafood is one of the two most common sources of mercury exposure in adults. Although concentrations of mercury in air and water are increasing, they are still too small for alarm. But bacteria process the mercury in lakes and oceans into a form that accumulates in living tissue. Plankton take in the bacteria and are in turn eaten by small fish. With each meal, the mercury concentration rises. Then larger fish eat the small fish, increasing tissue concentrations still more. Fish at the top of the food chain accumulate the most mercury. The species singled out by the recent FDA advisory—big predators such as albacore tuna, shark, and swordfish—can have 100 times more mercury in their tissues than smaller fish do.
The methylmercury in fish passes readily from the human gut to the bloodstream and on into all organs and tissues. It seems to act most powerfully on the brain because the compound is strongly attracted to fatty molecules called lipids, and the brain has the highest lipid content of any organ. Methylmercury crosses the protective blood-brain barrier by binding with an essential amino acid that has dedicated carrier proteins for shunting it into brain cells. Once inside brain cells, some of it gets converted to an inorganic form that sticks to and disables many structural proteins and enzymes essential to cell function. “It can destroy the biological function of any protein it binds to,” says Boyd Haley, a biochemist at the University of Kentucky.
Researchers learned how much mercury the body can tolerate from studies of victims of catastrophic poisoning, such as the Japanese sickened by eating fish from Minamata Bay and the Iraqis who ate grain treated with a methylmercury-based preservative in the early 1970s. But those studies do not reveal how little mercury it takes to cause harm. At the time of her diagnosis, the Dartmouth chemist had 4,000 micrograms of mercury per liter in her blood. A diet consistently high in fish can create a blood-mercury level of about 25 micrograms per liter. That’s far below a lethal dose, but it still may not be safe.