Background Data on mercury exposure of the Austrian population were inadequate. This study was performed to determine the causal factors underlying mercury exposure and selenium concentrations, and to estimate the gender-related health impacts.
Methodology Venous blood samples of 78 women and 81 men were drawn at the Austrian Red Cross, Vienna. Mercury contents in acid-digested whole blood samples were measured after amalgam enrichment by CV-AAS, and selenium by AAS (heated quartz-cell) after hydrid formation.
Results The average total mercury blood content of Austrians was low (2.38 ± 1.55 μgL− 1; N = 152). Mercury and selenium concentrations were not different between the genders (P > 0.05) but we observed discrepancies regarding the causal factors. Mercury levels in men were influenced not only by fish consumption but also by age, education level, and amalgam fillings, whereas in women, only the diet (fish/seafood, red wine consumption) determined blood mercury (P < 0.05). Moreover, only the males indicated a depressive effect of dental amalgam on hematocrit (P < 0.05). Regarding selenium, age and alcohol consumption led to lower concentrations in men, whereas a high-level education had the opposite effect; no determinant was found for women. For the whole study group, a significant effect of chronic disease on selenium levels could be detected (P < 0.05). 18% of women and 13% of men showed marginal selenium deficiency (blood selenium < 65 μgL− 1). Selenium and mercury concentrations were not correlated.
Conclusions Our results indicate the need to evaluate and integrate gender-related findings in metal toxicology and trace element research, because different causal factors require different preventive measures to reduce mercury exposure and the risk of low selenium concentrations. Future research is needed on the gender- and age-related differences in fish/seafood consumption habits, the modifications of mercury toxicokinetics through sex hormones, the selenium supply in Austria, and the clinical relevance of a low selenium status.