Mercury And The Immune System

Göran Sandberg, Lymphocyte Unit, Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

Mercury is a compound without any known physiological action in the human organism. It is instead a member of a group of highly toxic metals and has effects on, for example, enzyme function and calcium ion channels at concentrations only slightly above those normally found in healthy subjects. Exposure to mercury occurs not only through environmental pollution but also deliberately, for example in various therapeutic preparations. Mercury is known to be particularly toxic for the kidneys and central nervous system and effects on the reproductive system have also been suggested. A carcinogenic effect may exist, judging from kidney tumour formation in methyl mercury-exposed male ICR mice and mercuric chloride-exposed male F344/N rats. Interesting effects of this metal on the immune system have been demonstrated. Mercury is allergenic, affects production of immunoglobulin and induces multispecific antibodies and autoimmune reactions. Mercuric chloride is a polyclonal activator of both B and T lymphocytes. A clear genetic influence on the immunological effects of mercury exists. This is of particular interest considering the suspected great individual differences in sensitivity to mercury in humans. That the polyclonal activation of T cells is genetically controlled is quite unique.

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