Mercury Exposure and Child Development Outcomes

Mercury is ubiquitous in the global environment, ensuring universal exposure. Some forms of mercury are especially neurotoxic, including clinical signs at high doses. However, typical human exposures occur at low to moderate doses. Only limited data about neurotoxicity at low doses are available, and scientists differ in their interpretation. Dose–response data on neurodevelopment are particularly limited. Despite or perhaps because of the lack of sufficient or consistent scientific data, public concern about a link between mercury exposure and developmental disabilities has been rising. After reviewing the data, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed a reference dose (an estimate of a daily dose that is likely to be without a risk of adverse effects over a lifetime) for methyl mercury that is substantially lower than previous guidelines from the World Health Organization, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the US Food and Drug Administration. Some questions have been raised about the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines, but the issue remains unresolved. Meanwhile, consumer groups have raised questions about the potential link between mercury exposure and autism spectrum disorders as well as other adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes. This hypothesis has prompted some parents to seek regulatory, legal, or medical remedies in the absence of firm evidence. This article reviews what is known about mercury neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental risk. Our intent is to focus the debate about mercury on 1) additional research that should be sought and 2) defining the principal issues that public policy makers face.