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Environ Health Perspect. 2000 June; 108(Suppl 3): 413–420.
PMCID: PMC1637830
Research Article

Does methylmercury have a role in causing developmental disabilities in children?


Methylmercury (MeHg) is a potent neurotoxin that in high exposures can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and seizures. The developing brain appears particularly sensitive to MeHg. Exposure levels in pregnant experimental animals that do not result in detectable signs or symptoms in the mother can adversely affect the offspring's development. Studies of human poisonings suggest this may also occur in humans. Human exposure to MeHg is primarily dietary through the consumption of fish: MeHg is present in all fresh and saltwater fish. Populations that depend on fish as a major source of dietary protein may achieve MeHg exposure levels hypothesized to adversely affect brain development. Increasing mercury levels in the environment have heightened concerns about dietary exposure and a possible role for MeHg in developmental disabilities. Follow-up studies of an outbreak of MeHg poisoning in Iraq revealed a dose-response relationship for prenatal MeHg exposure. That relationship suggested that prenatal exposure as low as 10 ppm (measured in maternal hair growing during pregnancy) could adversely affect fetal brain development. However, using the same end points as were used in the Iraq study, no associations have been reported in fish-eating populations. Using a more extensive range of developmental end points, some studies of populations consuming seafood have reported associations with prenatal MeHg exposure, whereas others have found none. This paper reviews the data presently available associating MeHg exposure with development and poses some of the unanswered questions in this field.

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Selected References

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