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Methylmercury poisoning

Definition

Methylmercury poisoning is brain and nervous system damage from the chemical methylmercury.

Alternative Names

Minamata Bay disease; Basra poison grain poisoning

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Methylmercury is a type of mercury ("quicksilver"), a metal that is liquid at room temperature. Most compounds containing mercury are poisonous. Methylmercury has been used to preserve seed grain, which is fed to animals. Methylmercury may also form in water when other forms of mercury in the water react with certain bacteria. Methylmercury poisoning has occurred after people have eaten meat from animals fed seed grain or fish from waters contaminated with methylmercury (such as Minamata Bay in Japan).

Unborn babies and young infants are very sensitive to methylmercury's effects. Methylmercury causes central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) damage. How bad the damage is depends on how much poison gets into the body. Many of the symptoms of mercury poisoning are similar to those seen in cerebral palsy. In fact, methylmercury is thought to cause a form of cerebral palsy.

The FDA recommends that women who are pregnant, or may become pregnant, and nursing mothers avoid fish that may contain unsafe levels of methylmercury. Such fish includes swordfish, king mackerel, shark, or tilefish. (Young infants should not be given these fish, either.) You should not eat any type of these fish caught by friends and family. Check with your local or state health departments for warnings against locally caught, noncommercial fish.

Some health care providers have raised concerns about ethyl mercury (thimerosal), a chemical used in some vaccines. However, research shows that childhood vaccines do not lead to dangerous mercury levels in the body. Vaccines used in children today only contain trace amounts of thimerosal. Thimerosal-free vaccines are available.

Symptoms

Signs and tests

Tests will vary depending on the symptoms that occur.

Treatment

Methylmercury damage is irreversible. Treatment is determined by the severity of the condition and is similar to that given for cerebral palsy. The patient should be removed from the source of exposure. Treatment may involve:

  • Activated charcoal (if mercury is swallowed)
  • Fluids and electrolytes
  • Dialysis (kidney machine)

Expectations (prognosis)

The symptoms are irreversible; however, they do not usually worsen unless there is a new exposure to methylmercury.

Complications

Complications depend on the severity of the condition, and the specific symptoms manifested (such as blindness or deafness).

Methylmercury poisoning has been linked to an increased heart attack rate.

Calling your health care provider

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

Prevention

Strict avoidance of any foods contaminated with methylmercury will prevent poisoning. Because of manufacturing, mercury has become so common in the environment that trace amounts of methylmercury are present in many foods derived from the ocean, including deep-sea tuna. Fortunately, the levels are low enough that most of these foods remain safe. Contact poison control if you believe you may have been exposed.

References

Long H, Nelson LS. Metals and metalloids. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 184.


Review Date: 2/28/2012
Reviewed By: Eric Perez, MD, St. Luke's / Roosevelt Hospital Center, NY, NY, and Pegasus Emergency Group (Meadowlands and Hunterdon Medical Centers), NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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