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Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury
THE COMMITTEE'S EVALUATION
Health Effects of Methylmercury
MeHg is rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and readily enters the adult and fetal brain, where it accumulates and is slowly converted to inorganic Hg. The exact mechanism by which MeHg causes neurotoxic effects is not known, and data are not available on how exposure to other forms of Hg affects MeHg toxicity.
MeHg is highly toxic. Exposure to MeHg can result in adverse effects in several organ systems throughout the life span of humans and animals. There are extensive data on the effects of MeHg on the development of the brain (neurodevelopmental effects) in humans and animals. The most severe effects reported in humans were seen following high-dose poisoning episodes in Japan and Iraq. Effects included mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and dysarthria in individuals who were exposed in utero and sensory and motor impairment in exposed adults. Chronic, low-dose prenatal MeHg exposure from maternal consumption of fish has been associated with more subtle end points of neurotoxicity in children. Those end points include poor performance on neurobehavioral tests, particularly on tests of attention, fine-motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities (e.g., drawing), and verbal memory. Of three large epidemiological studies, two studies — one conducted in the Faroe Islands and one in New Zealand — found such associations, but those effects were not seen in a major study conducted in the Seychelles islands.
Overall, data from animal studies, including studies on nonhuman primates, indicate that the developing nervous system is a sensitive target organ for low-dose MeHg exposure. Results from animal studies have reported effects on cognitive, motor, and sensory functions.
There is also evidence in humans and animals that exposure to MeHg can have adverse effects on the developing and adult cardiovascular system (blood-pressure regulation, heart-rate variability, and heart disease). Some research demonstrated adverse cardiovascular effects at or below MeHg exposure levels associated with neurodevelopmental effects. Some studies demonstrated an association between MeHg and cancer, but, overall, the evidence for MeHg being carcinogenic is incon-