What is the role of hair analysis in the workup of 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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While blood levels are useful for more acute exposures, long-term exposures are best reflected in hair mercury measurements. Hair has high sulfhydryl content. Mercury forms covalent bonds with sulfur and, therefore, can be found in abundance in hair samples.

Because of environmental contamination, hair measurements have been problematic with elemental mercury exposure, but methylmercury hair measurements are considered accurate. [75] A hair value of 1.2 mcg/g encompassed 90% of the NHANES sample. [74]

Interestingly, investigators of Minamata disease identified chronic forms of the disease in which hair mercury levels were not elevated. A delayed neurotoxic effect, with symptoms emerging after age-induced neuronal loss, was hypothesized. [3] Similarly, some researchers have been unable to correlate the fluctuations of mercury blood levels with signs and symptoms of toxicity in mercury vapor exposure. [76]

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