New research from the University of Michigan and McGill University suggests that mercury and methylmercury exposure may increase the risk of autoimmune disease in women of childbearing age. Autoimmune diseases, of which there are many, are diseases in which a person’s immune response starts attacking the person’s own proteins. Such diseases are often chronic, debilitating, and life threatening. They are reported to be among the top ten causes of death in women under the age of 65.
The study looked for association between an already existing database of mercury concentrations in the hair, blood and urine of pre-menopausal women and the concentration of antinuclear antibodies, an indicator of autoimmune problems. The study found that “low levels of methylmercury exposure are linked to subclinical autoimmunity, among females of reproductive age in the general population. As autoantibody development is a marker of immune dysregulation and may predate clinical autoimmune diagnoses by several years, the prospect that organic mercury acts as an early but potentially modifiable trigger relevant to a spectrum of autoimmune conditions warrants more intense investigation”.
Evidence of harm to health arising from mercury has been building slowly over the last few decades but this appears to be the first study suggesting a link to autoimmune disease. Inorganic mercury, from coal-fired power station emissions, dental amalgam, broken mercury thermometers, older thermostats and medical equipment, older mercury button cell batteries, a few medical liquids, some contaminated sites, and fluorescent lightbulbs and methylmercury in mercury-contaminated fish are among the sources of environmental mercury. Mercury is an element and hence cannot be destroyed, nor can it be readily converted to non-toxic compounds though stabilization in certain matrices is possible.
Mercury and its compounds are subject to increasing levels of government regulation and those are likely to become more stringent as the evidence of the harmful effects of mercury builds. Brandowners still reliant on mercury in their products are encouraged to seek effective replacements as soon as possible. Meanwhile all end of life mercury-containing products should be collected and sent to properly managed mercury recovery and recycling facilities.
The report Mercury Exposure and Antinuclear Antibodies among Females of Reproductive Age in the United States: NHANES is available as a PDF file at http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1408751/.