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We review wildlife/mercury literature and our own research findings that demonstrate the relevance of wildlife toxicity data in protecting human health. Methylmercury affects wildlife through reduced adult survival and reproduction, aberrant behavior, immune system effects, and teratogenic effects. Methylmercury can readily cross the blood-brain barrier, is excreted into eggs in birds, and is transferred to young mammals across the placenta and in milk. Its principal effect on wildlife is on neurological functions. Wild mink (Mustela vison) and otter (Lutra canadensis) have died from methylmercury poisoning, with signs of poisoning including anorexia, loss of weight, incoordination, tremors, and convulsions, which are symptoms similar to those experienced by mercury-poisoned humans. Mammals also may experience tonic and clonic convulsions and an increase in fetal anomalies, again paralleling toxic problems in people. Antibody-producing cells can be suppressed by methylmercury. Microscopically, the most notable lesions are in the cerebrum. Extensive vacuolation of hepatocytes in the liver and necrosis and other changes in the appearance of the proximal convoluted tubules of the kidneys are often noted. When harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) were dosed with methylmercury chloride the number of circulating erythrocytes decreased and white blood cell counts greatly increased. The poisoned seals also suffered from uremia, hyperproteinemia, hypercholesterolemia, hyperbilirubinemia, and elevations in lactic dehydrogenase and alkaline phosphatase. In birds, signs of methylmercury poisoning included emaciation and weakness in the extremities, which progressed until the birds died. Mercury poisoning in birds and mammals can be diagnosed from a combination of the signs of poisoning if the animal is still alive, the pathological effects seen in a gross necropsy, the histopathological effects seen with a microscope, and the concentrations of mercury in various tissues. Our studies with mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) suggest that the dietary concentrations of mercury that cause toxicity are lower than those set in fish consumption advisories to protect humans. Because wild mammals and birds are so sensitive to methylmercury poisoning and cannot escape dietary exposure the way humans can, guidelines set to protect wild birds and mammals may very well provide a margin of safety for human health.
Additional Publication Details
Overview of developmental, reproductive, and behavioral/ neurological effects of mercury exposures in wildlife