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The ubiquitous nature of mercury in the environment, its global atmospheric cycling, and its toxicity to humans at levels that are uncomfortably close to exposures experienced by a proportion of the population are some of the current concerns associated with this pollutant. The purpose of this review is to critically evaluate the scientific quality of published reports involving human exposures to mercury and associated health outcomes as an aid in the risk evaluation of this chemical. A comprehensive review of the scientific literature involving human exposures to mercury was performed and each publication evaluated using a defined set of criteria that are considered standards in epidemiologic and toxicologic research. Severe, sometimes fatal, effects of mercury exposure at high levels were primarily reported as case studies. The disasters in Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s and in Iraq in 1971-1972 clearly demonstrated neurologic effects associated with ingestion of methylmercury both in adults and in infants exposed in utero. The effects were convincingly associated with methylmercury ingestion, despite limitations of the study design. Several well-conducted studies have investigated the effects of methylmercury at levels below those in the Iraq incident but have not provided clear evidence of an effect. The lower end of the dose-response curve constructed from the Iraq data therefore still needs to be confirmed. The studies of mercury exposure in the workplace were mainly of elemental or inorganic mercury, and effects that were observed at relatively low exposure levels were primarily neurologic and renal. Several studies have investigated effects associated with dental amalgam but have been rated as inconclusive because of methodologic deficiencies. In our overall evaluation, 29 of 110 occupational studies and 20 of 54 studies where exposure occurred in the natural environment provided at least suggestive evidence of an exposure-related effect.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 1996

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