How does organic mercury cause mercury toxicity?

Updated: Nov 05, 2018
  • Author: David A Olson, MD; Chief Editor: Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS  more...
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Organic mercury can be found in 3 forms: aryl and short- and long-chain alkyl compounds. Organic mercurials are absorbed more completely from the GI tract than inorganic salts are; this is because of intrinsic properties, such as lipid solubility and mild corrosiveness (although organic mercury is much less corrosive than inorganic mercury).

Once absorbed, the aryl and long-chain alkyl compounds are converted to their inorganic forms and possess similar toxic properties to inorganic mercury. The short-chain alkyl mercurials (methylmercury) are readily absorbed in the GI tract (90–95%) and remain stable in their initial forms. Alkyl organic mercury has high lipid solubility and is distributed uniformly throughout the body, accumulating in the brain, kidney, liver, hair, and skin. Organic mercurials also cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta and penetrate erythrocytes, producing neurologic symptoms, teratogenic effects, and high blood to plasma ratio, respectively.

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