Public Health and Economic Consequences of Methyl Mercury Toxicity to the Developing Brain

Leonardo Trasande; Philip J. Landrigan; Clyde Schechter


Environ Health Perspect. 2005;113(5):590-596. 

In This Article


The major findings in this analysis are a ) that exposure to methyl mercury emitted to the atmosphere by American electric generation facilities causes lifelong loss of intelligence in hundreds of thousands of American babies born each year and b ) that this loss of intelligence exacts a significant economic cost to American society, a cost that amounts to at least hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Moreover, these costs will recur each year with each new birth cohort as long as mercury emissions are not controlled. By contrast, the cost of installing stack filters to control atmospheric mercury emissions is a one-time expense. The high costs of in utero exposure to methyl mercury are due principally to the lifelong consequences of irreversible injury to the developing brain. Similar lifelong neurobehavioral consequences have been observed after exposure of the developing brain to other environmental toxicants, including lead (Baghurst et al. 1987; Bellinger 2004; Dietrich et al. 1987; Opler et al. 2004; Wasserman et al. 2000), polychlorinated biphenyls (Jacobson and Jacobson 1996), and ethanol (Lupton et al. 2004).

Because the literature has presented a range of possible consequences for methyl mercury toxicity, we have provided a range of possible public health and economic consequences. This range is meant to inform the choices that environmental and public health officials make in protecting vulnerable populations from methyl mercury exposure. Our range for the true economic costs of methyl mercury toxicity to the developing brain omits the cost of exposures to the 231,352 children born to women in 2000 with blood mercury concentrations between 3.5 and 4.84 µg/L. If the true cord blood ratio is 1.7 times the maternal blood concentration, as described in the most recent and extensive meta-analysis on the matter (Stern and Smith 2003), these children are also born with cord blood mercury concentrations above the 5.8 µg/L concentration at which adverse neurodevelopmental impact has been found. We chose not to include them in our analysis because other studies have found lower ratios and because we restricted ourselves in this analysis to the use of available, published prevalence data of maternal blood mercury concentrations. In our sensitivity analysis, we also selected low cord:maternal blood ratios so as to describe most accurately the range of values for the true cost of methyl mercury exposure to the developing fetus.

Our analysis also omits the cost of the cardiovascular impacts of mercury exposure (Grandjean et al. 2004) or the costs of mercury exposure to children in the first 2 years of postnatal life, when myelination is still continuing and the blood-brain barrier remains vulnerable to penetration by methyl mercury (Rodier 1995). We chose not to include these aspects of methyl mercury toxicity in our range of estimates at this time because there do not exist sufficient quantitative data to permit construction of a reliable model.

A limitation on our analysis is that it did not consider other societal costs beyond decreased lifetime earnings that may result from exposure of the developing brain to methyl mercury. For example, if the value of a child's social productivity is approximately $4-9 million, as suggested by studies of willingness-to-pay (WTP) estimates of a life (Viscusi and Aldy 2004), then by the WTP methodology the true cost of methyl mercury toxicity may be much higher than our estimate. We also chose not to include other noncognitive impacts. Lead, for example, has been associated with criminality and antisocial behavior (Dietrich et al. 2001; Needleman et al. 1996, 2002; Nevin 2000; Stretesky and Lynch 2001). However, because these behaviors have not been described as yet for methyl mercury, we chose not to include such costs in our estimate.

Some will argue that our range of costs fails to incorporate the role of confounding factors in quantifying the economic consequences of methyl mercury exposure. It is true that efforts to delineate the potential synergistic role of methyl mercury and other chemicals in mediating neurocognitive and other effects are bedeviled by lack of knowledge about possible interactions and synergies among chemicals or between chemicals and other environmental hazards, even though the environment of a child includes mixtures of chemical and biologic toxicants. Only a study of the magnitude of the National Children's Study will facilitate simultaneous examination of the effects of multiple chemical exposures, of interactions among them, and of interactions among biologic, chemical, behavioral, and social factors (Trasande and Landrigan 2004). However, we note that loss of cognition resulting from methyl mercury exposure in the Faroe Islands study remained evident when blood levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, which are known fetal neurotoxicants (Jacobson and Jacobson 1996), were included in the analysis (Budtz-Jorgensen et al. 2002; Steuerwald et al. 2000).

We note the U.S. EPA's recent success in minimizing mercury emissions from medical waste (U.S. EPA 2004e) and municipal incinerators (U.S. EPA 2004f, 2004g), actions that resulted in a decrease in total mercury emissions by at least 80 tons per year from 1990 to 1999 (U.S. EPA 2003b). Although data are not available on blood mercury concentrations over the past decade that followed from those actions, the impact of these reductions is likely to have been substantial.

Some commentators have used data from the Seychelles study to argue that methyl mercury is not toxic to the fetus at low concentrations and to suggest that fear of mercury exposure is needlessly preventing women from ingesting fish and thus denying them access to beneficial long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). We do not dispute that DHA and other LCPUFAs are important for optimal development of the fetal visual and nervous systems (Innis 1991). The human fetus has a limited ability to synthesize DHA's precursor, α-linolenic acid, and therefore it must be largely supplied from maternal sources (Carnielli et al. 1996; Larque et al. 2002; Szitanyi et al. 1999). We also note a report that associated an average monthly decline in fish consumption of 1.4 servings among Massachusetts women with a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory on the health risks of mercury (Oken et al. 2003). Nonetheless, the American Heart Association, a strong advocate for the cardioprotective effects of LCPUFAs, recommends that children and pregnant and lactating women avoid potentially contaminated fish (Kris-Etherton et al. 2002). Fish advisories should not recommend that consumers abstain from fish, but they should assist in choosing the best kinds of fish to eat. Lists of fish that are safe and unsafe from the perspective of mercury exposure have been published and made widely available to consumers (U.S. EPA 2004h).

Early reports of disease and dysfunction of environmental origin in children have on repeated occasions failed to produce proactive response to protect children. The long history of lead use in the United States provides a chilling reminder of the consequences of failure to act on early evidence of harm. It is important that we not repeat this sequence with mercury. Within the last century, as a result of increased industrial activity, mercury emissions worldwide have increased 2- to 5-fold, and anthropogenic emissions now surpass emissions from natural sources (Nriagu 1989).

The data from this analysis reinforce the results of recent epidemiologic studies and indicate an urgent need on economic grounds for regulatory intervention at the federal level to minimize mercury emissions. Our analysis captures the cost of methyl mercury exposure for only 1 year's birth cohort, but the cost of mercury exposure will continue to accrue in each succeeding year if power plants fail to install flue gas filters (U.S. Department of Energy 2004) or to implement other technologies to reduce mercury emissions. The cost savings from reducing mercury exposure now will provide savings in improved productivity and enhanced national security for generations to come.


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