Mercury in Human Ecology

  • Tsuguyoshi Suzuki
Part of the Rochester Series on Environmental Toxicity book series (RSET)


Mercury has existed in the human environment at every stage of human evolution. Therefore, how was, and is, human adaptation to the existing level of mercury to be clarified to approach the limitation in our adaptability. For this, it is necessary to evaluate the environmental characteristics of each local human ecosystem.
  1. 1.

    Mercury in a tropical human ecosystem with traditional ways of living.

    In an ecosystem in the Papua lowlands, mercury, mostly in the form of methylmercury, is found in fishes and reptiles at elevated levels. Mercury levels are correlated with the stable isotope ratio of nitrogen (15N/14N) in animal food which indicates a biomagnification of mercury accumulation through the food chain. In animal foods, mercury to selenium ratio is getting close to unity on the molar basis with increasing mercury levels. Dietary mercury intake and hair mercury levels in the fish-eating sector are comparable with those in developed countries. Balance between Se and Hg in the dietary intake is inclined to relative excess of Se to Hg.

  2. 2.

    Mercury in an urbanized ecosystem (Tokyo).

    In an urbanized ecosystem in an industrialized country, the major source of mercury is via fish consumption. In organs obtained from forensic autopsy cases in Tokyo, methylmercury levels are uniform through all the organs (30 to 50 ng/g on average) except the liver (113 ng/g), but inorganic mercury levels are high in the liver and kidney (266 to 456 ng/g) and low in the brain, heart and spleen (4 to 9 ng/g). Selenium levels are significantly correlated with mercury levels in some organs, particularly in the kidney, where% inorganic to total mercury is as high as 85%.

    From these results and additionally the results obtained on harbor seals caught in the Okhotsk sea, the role of selenium in adapting environmental mercury will be hypothetically discussed.



Mercury Concentration Marine Mammal Total Mercury Mercury Level Stable Isotope Ratio 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aoi, T., Higuchi, T., Kidokoro, R., Fukumura, R., Yagi, A., Ohguchi, S., Sasa, A., Hayashi, H., Sakamoto, N., and Hanaichi, T., 1985, An association of mercury with selenium in inorganic mercury intoxication, Hum. Toxicol., 4:637.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chmiielnicka, J., Komsta-Szuumska, E., and Zareba, G., 1983, Effect of interaction between 65Zn, mercury and selenium in rats (retention, metallothionein, endogenous copper), Arch.Toxicol., 53:165.Google Scholar
  3. Chmielnicka, J., Brzeznicka, E., Sniady, A., 1986, Kidney concentrations and urinary excretion of mercury, zinc and copper following the administration of mercuric chloride and sodium selenite to rats, Arch. Toxicol., 59:16.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. DeNiro, M. J., and Epstein, S., 1978, Influence of diet on the distribution of carbon isotopes in animals, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 42:495.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. DeNiro, M. J., and Epstein, S., 1981, Influence of diet on the distribution of nitrogen isotopes in animals, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 45:341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dunn, M. A., Blalock, T. L., and Cousins, R. J., 1987, Metallothionein, Proc. Soc. Experim. Biol. Med., 185:107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Harris, D. R. (ed.) 1980, “Human Ecology in Savanna Environment”, Academic Press, London.Google Scholar
  8. Himeno, S., Watanabe, C., Hongo, T., Suzuki, T., Naganuma, A., Imura, N., Morita, M., 1989, Body size and organ accumulation of mercury and selenium in young harbor seals, (Phoca vitulina), Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol., 42:503.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hongo, T., Suzuki, T., Ohtsuka, R., Kawabe, T. Inaoka, T., and Akimichi, T., 1989, Element intake of the Gidra in lowland Papua: Inter-village variation and the comparison with contemporary levels in developed countries, Ecol. Food Nutr., 23:293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Keoman, J. H., Peeters, W. H. M., Koudstaal-Hol, C. H. M., Tjioe, P. S., and de Goeij, J. J. M., 1973, Mercury-selenium correlations in marine mammals, Nature, 245:385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Koeman, J. H., van de Ven, W. S. M., de Goeij, J. J. M., Tjioe, P. S., and van Haaften, J. L., 1975, Mercury and selenium in marine mammals and birds, Sci. Total Environ., 3:279.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Komsta-Szumska, E., and Chmielnicka, J., 1981, Organ and subcellular distribution of mercury in rats in the presence of cadmium, zinc, copper, and sodium selenite, Clin. Toxicol., 18:1327.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kosta, L., Byrne, A. R., and Zelenko, V., 1975, Correlation between selenium and mercury in man following exposure to inorganic mercury, Nature, 254:238.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Magos, L., Clarkson, T. W., Sparrow, S., and Hudson, A. R., 1987, Comparison of the protection given by selenite, selenomethionine and biological selenium against the renotoxicity of mercury, Arch. Toxicol., 60:422.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Matsuo, N., Suzuki, T., and Akagi, H., 1989, Mercury concentration in organs of contemporary Japanese, Arch. Environ. Health, 44:298.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Matsuo,. N., Suzuki, T., Yoshinaga, J., Hongo, T., and Akagi, H., Hair vs. organs: comparison of mercury concentrations in contemporary Japanese unpublished.Google Scholar
  17. Minagawa, M., and Wada, E., 1984, Stepwise enrichment of 15N along food chains: further evidence and the relation between 15N and animal age, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 48:1135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ohtsuka, R., 1983, “Oriomo Papuans: Ecology of Sago-Eaters in Lowland Papua”, University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo.Google Scholar
  19. Ohtsuka, R. and Suzuki, T., 1978, Zinc, copper and mercury in Oriomo Papuan’s Hair, Ecol. Food Nutr. 6:243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ohtsuka, R., and Suzuki, T. (eds.), 1990, “Population Ecology of Human Survival, Bioecological Studies of the Gidra in Papua, New Guinea”, University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo.Google Scholar
  21. O’Leary, M. H., 1981, Carbon isotope fractionation in plants, Phytochem., 20:553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Park, R., and Epstein, S., 1961, Metabolic fractionation of 13C and 13C in plants, Plant Physiol., 36:133.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Rossi, L. C., Clemente, G. F., and Santaroni, G., 1976, Mercury and selenium distribution in a defined area and its population, Arch. Environ. Health, 36:160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Shirabe, T., Eto, K., and Takeuchi, T., 1979, Identification of mercury in the brain of Minamata disease victims by electron microscopic X-ray microanalysis, Neurotoxicology, 1:349.Google Scholar
  25. Suzuki, T., Watanabe, S., Hongo, T., Kawabe, T., Inaoka, T., Ohtsuka, R., and Akimichi, T., 1988, Mercury in scalp hair of Papuans in the Fly estuary, Papua, New Guinea, Asia-Pacific J. Publ. Health, 2:39.Google Scholar
  26. Suzuki, T., 1988, Selenium: Its Role in Metal-Metal Interaction, in: “Environmental and Occupational Chemical Hazards, Proceedings Asia-Pacific Symposium on Environmental and Occupational Toxicology,” K. Sumino, S. Iwai, H. P. Lee, C. N. Ong, and K. Saijoh, eds., 21–30, International Center for Medical Research, Kobe University School of Medicine, Kobe.Google Scholar
  27. Suzuki, T., 1989, Human adaptability to environmental pollutants, in particular methylmercury, Sangyo-Igaku Rebyu, 2:25, (in Japanese).Google Scholar
  28. Tohyama, C., Himeno, S., Watanabe, C., Suzuki T., and Monta, M., 1986, The relationship of the increased level of metallothionein with heavy metal levels in the tissue of the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), Ecotoxicol. Environ. Safety, 12:85.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ujioka, T., 1960, Analytical studies on methylmercury in animal organs and foodstuff, J. Kumamoto Med. Assoc., 34 (Suppl. 1):383. (in Japanese)Google Scholar
  30. van Fleet, J. F., Boon, G. D., and Ferrans, V. J., 1981, Induction of lesions of selenium-vitamin E deficiency in weanling swine fed silver, cobalt, tellurium, zinc, cadmium and vanadium, Am. J. Vet. Res., 42:789.Google Scholar
  31. World Health Organization, 1972. Evaluation of certian food additives and contaminants, mercury, lead and cadmium. WHO Tech. Rep. Ser. No. 505.Google Scholar
  32. World Health Organization, IPCS International Programme on Chemical Safety, 1989, Environmental Health Criteria 86, Mercury-Environmental Aspects, WHO, Geneva.Google Scholar
  33. Yoshinaga, J., Matsuo, N., Imai, H., Nakazawa, M., Suzuki, T., Monta, M., and Akagi, H., 1990, Interrelationship between the concentrations of some elements in the organs of Japanese with special reference to selenium-heavy metal relations, Sci. Total Environ., 91:127.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Yoshinaga, J., Minagawa, M., Suzuki, T., Ohtsuka, R., Kawabe, T., Hongo, T. Inaoka, T., and Akimichi, T. Carbon and nitrogen isotopic characterization for New Guinea Foods, Ecol. Food Nutr., in press.Google Scholar
  35. Yoshinaga, J., Suzuki, T., Hongo, T., Minagawa, M., Ohtsuka, R., Kawabe, T., Inaoka, T., and Akimichi, T. Mercury concentration correlates with nitrogen stable isotope ratio in animal food of Papuans. Ecotoxicol. Environ. Safety, in press.Google Scholar
  36. Yoshinaga, J., Suzuki, T., Ohtsuka, R., Kawabe, T., Hongo, T., Imai, H., Inaoka, T., and Akimichi, T. Dietary selenium intake of the Gidra, Papua, New Guinea. Ecol. Food. Nutr., in press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tsuguyoshi Suzuki
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Human Ecology, School of Health Sciences, Faculty of MedicineThe University of TokyoBunkyo-ku, TokyoJapan

Personalised recommendations