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Organic mercury compounds: human exposure and its relevance to public health

Humans may be exposed to organic forms of mercury by either inhalation, oral, or dermal routes, and the effects of such exposure depend upon both the type of mercury to which exposed and the magnitude of the exposure. In general, the effects of exposure to organic mercury are primarily neurologic, while a host of other organ systems may also be involved, including gastrointestinal, respiratory, hepatic, immune, dermal, and renal. While the primary source of exposure to organic mercury for most populations is the consumption of methylmercury-contaminated fish and shellfish, there are a number of other organomercurials to which humans might be exposed. The antibacterial and antifungal properties of organomercurials have resulted in their long use as topical disinfectants (thimerosal and merbromin) and preservatives in medical preparations (thimerosal) and grain products (both methyl and ethyl mercurials). Phenylmercury has been used in the past in paints, and dialkyl mercurials are still used in some industrial processes and in the calibration of certain analytical laboratory equipment. The effects of exposure to different organic mercurials by different routes of exposure are summarized in this article.