Mercury miasma

1. Mercury morass

2. Danger signs

3. Mercury mystery

4. Safety: in eye of beholder?

A man tends his nets at Mahe, in the Seychelles Islands. An ongoing study says he's not poisoning his family with his catch. Photo: NOAA

Landmark studies on these remote islands have shown the danger -- or is that the safety? -- of low-level mercury ingestion.

Farming Atlantic salmon, Faroe Islands, Denmark, 1991. Photo: NASA

Three studies looked at the brain effects of mercury in fish. What should we make of their results?

Three studies, three results
mercury mass in the shape of a fish The science of mercury exposure rests on three studies of the association between mercury levels during pregnancy and the performance of children on psychological tests, in three remote reaches of the ocean:

Seychelles (Indian Ocean): A study begun in 1989 looked for an association between mercury exposure and behavior, motor skills, memory and thinking in 779 children born to mothers who averaged a dozen fish meals a week. At the latest follow-up, around age 9, (see "Prenatal Methylmercury Exposure..." in the bibliography), higher mercury exposure was associated with two test results. Boys, but not girls, were slower at one movement test, but only when using their less capable hand. Boys and girls exposed to more mercury were rated as less hyperactive by their teachers. The authors concluded, "These data do not support the hypothesis that there is a neurodevelopmental risk from prenatal methylmercury exposure resulting solely from ocean fish consumption."

Wizened man leans over fishing net on beach.

New Zealand (South Pacific): A study of 237 children found no association between test performance and mercury. But when data from one child, whose mother had by far the highest mercury level, was ignored, scores on 6 of 26 tests did link mercury levels to lower performance. We don't know which analysis is more credible, but then, neither do the study authors, who concluded, "We do not believe it is possible to say based on current data, whether results including or eliminating this child are nearer to the truth" (see "Influence of Prenatal Mercury..." in the bibliography).

Faeroes Islands (North Atlantic): Scientists from Denmark studied a traditional population that ate some fish, and occasionally feasted on mercury-contaminated whales. By age 7, 614 children with the most complete mercury-exposure data had lower scores in 8 of 16 tests of language, memory and attention (see "Neurotoxic Risk..." in the bibliography).

The results, unfortunately, did not add up. The Faeroes study found brain problems, but the New Zealand study was equivocal, and the Seychelles study exonerated mercury.

Map shows location of Seychelles, Faroe islands, and New Zealand.

? ? ?
Everybody we talked to agreed that the three studies were good science. But how could similar, high-quality studies produce such conflicting results?

Genetics: Perhaps different genes gave these three groups a differing ability to compensate for mercury, or to dump it from their bodies. Speaking about the contrasting results from the Seychelles and the Faeroes, H. Vasken Aposhian, professor of pharmacology and molecular biology at the University of Arizona, says, "The explanation could be this is two genetically radically different groups of people. It's very possible that there are polymorphisms [genetic differences] in these groups that caused them to differ in how they react to the toxicity of methylmercury." Aposhian, who served on the National Research Council mercury review panel that reported in 2000, says, "Without realizing it, there could be a damn good genetic reason why both results could be right."

Technique: Perhaps the technique for measuring mercury exposure affected the results, says Gary Myers, a professor of pediatric neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who works on the Seychelles study. Myers notes that the Faeroes study measured mercury in umbilical-cord blood, while "every other study that has ever been done has used hair as a biomarker... There are reasons to think that hair is better ... it's thought that organic mercury enters the hair the same way as it enters the brain, through the blood-brain barrier."

Large rings of metal and net in the open water. Diet: The diet in the Faeroes is dull and Scandinavian, observes Myers, while people in the Seychelles eat more vegies, fruits and spices, all sources of anti-oxidants and other healthy chemicals. "If you have good enough nutrition, that may overcome the mercury toxicity," he suggest. "Or maybe there's an interaction with a trace element. Selenium is known to lower the toxicity of mercury. There are number of possible explanations."

Diet, again: Could the source of the mercury affect the results? While people in the Seychelles average one or two doses of fish-'n-mercury on the average day, in the Faeroes, most of it comes from occasional feasts on pilot whales. "It's pulsed, once a month," says Gochfeld, the New Jersey mercury expert. "Even for the same amount of mercury, the fact that you are getting it all at a single dose may have greater consequence than if you get an equal amount, in fish, day after day. Maybe you can't clear it out." (This explanation, however, is rejected by Phillip Grandjean, the Danish scientist who lead the Faeroes study. In the publication cited above, he said that removing the children with the most erratic exposure did not substantially change the results.)

Multiple poisons: The blubber of pilot whales contains lots of the persistent pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). Could a witches' brew of PCBs and mercury explain why similar mercury exposure was dangerous in the Faeroes but not in the Seychelles? Perhaps, says Gochfeld. "PCB exposure is a ticklish issue. there are people like me who believe that methylmercury and PCB interact." However, as he notes, when the Faeroes study statistically eliminated the effects of PCBs, mercury still seemed damaging.

Recent work at the University of Illinois, however, indicates that PCBs and mercury are a dangerous duo. In a study probing the effects of multiple chemicals on Wisconsin people who eat a lot of fish, young rats slipped and fell more if their mothers had been exposed to PCBs and methylmercury, rather than mercury alone. "Our findings suggest that we should seriously consider the possible impact of additive toxic effects on human health," said study leader Susan Schantz, a professor of veterinary biosciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

So how do you come up with a safe standard for environmental mercury?

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