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Blood Mercury Levels Rising Among U.S. Women

Study uncovers big jump between 1999-2006, especially among older females

MONDAY, Aug. 24 (HealthDay News) -- A study involving more than 6,000 American women suggests that blood levels of mercury are accumulating over time, with a big rise noted over the past decade.

Using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a researcher from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that while inorganic mercury was detected in the blood of 2 percent of women aged 18 to 49 in the 1999-2000 NHANES survey, that level rose to 30 percent of women by 2005-2006.

"My study found compelling evidence that inorganic mercury deposition within the human body is a cumulative process, increasing with age and overall in the population over time," study author and neuroscience researcher Dan R. Laks said in an UCLA news release. "My findings also suggest a rise in risks for disease associated with mercury over time."

The findings come on the heels of a widely publicized report, released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey, which found that 25 percent of fish sampled from U.S. rivers and streams have unsafe levels of mercury.

Environmental sources of mercury include coal-fired electricity plants and contaminated fish, which tend to accumulate the toxin in their tissues. According to the news release, chronic mercury exposure has been linked in studies to a higher risk for autism, mental impairment and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

The UCLA study found evidence linking inorganic mercury in the blood to tissues known to be targets for the toxin, such as the liver, the immune system and the pituitary gland.

Laks also found a connection between levels of the pituitary hormone lutropin and chronic mercury exposure, which he said might help explain mercury's link to neurodegenerative disease. Inorganic mercury can also accumulate in the brain and stay there for years, according to the news release.

Overall, "these results suggest that chronic mercury exposure has reached a critical level where inorganic mercury deposition within the human body is accumulating over time," Laks said. "It is logical to assume that the risks of associated neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases will rise as well."

The findings are published online in the journal Biometals.

More information

Find out more about mercury at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

-- E.J. Mundell

SOURCE: Aug. 24, 2009, news release, University of California, Los Angeles

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