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Mercury Exposure: Current Concepts, Controversies, and a Clinic’s Experience

Kales, Stefanos N. MD, MPH; Goldman, Rose H. MD, MPH

Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: February 2002 - Volume 44 - Issue 2 - p 143-154

In the context of controversies surrounding fish consumption, amalgams, and commercial hair testing, we reviewed all cases from an occupational and environmental medicine clinic that had undergone mercury testing. Sixty-nine of 71 (97%) patients had no known mercury exposures other than diet or amalgams. Of these 69, 48 had blood mercury tested and 58 had urine testing. Regular-to-heavy fish consumption explained 10 of 11 cases with blood mercury concentrations >15 μg/L (19 to 53 μg/L). Six of these 10 individuals reported regular swordfish consumption. For the 31 patients with adequate dietary history, there was a significant relationship between fish consumption and blood mercury concentration (P < 0.001). Higher blood mercury concentrations were, however, not associated with specific patterns of health complaints. Ninety-eight percent (57 of 58) of urine values were <10 μg/L. Fourteen patients were evaluated because they were labeled as mercury toxic by other practitioners after unconventional commercial testing. Using standard tests of blood and urine, we could not document evidence of mercury toxicity in any of these 14 cases. We conclude that consumption of commercially available fish can lead to elevated blood mercury concentrations. A recognized exposure source is a better predictor of significant mercury concentrations in biologic media than any particular symptom constellation. Unconventional commercial panels that test hair or urine for multiple metals have questionable validity. Clinicians should use standard blood and urine tests to evaluate mercury exposure.

From the Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health (Occupational Health Program) (Dr Kales, Dr Goldman); and the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at Children’s Hospital, Boston (Dr Goldman).

Address correspondence to: Dr Stefanos Kales, the Cambridge Hospital, 1493 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02139;

Copyright © by American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

Copyright © 2002 by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine