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Mercury and autoimmunity: implications for occupational and environmental health

Mercury (Hg) has long been recognized as a neurotoxicant; however, recent work in animal models has implicated Hg as an immunotoxicant. In particular, Hg has been shown to induce autoimmune disease in susceptible animals with effects including overproduction of specific autoantibodies and pathophysiologic signs of lupus-like disease. However, these effects are only observed at high doses of Hg that are above the levels to which humans would be exposed through contaminated fish consumption. While there is presently no evidence to suggest that Hg induces frank autoimmune disease in humans, a recent epidemiological study has demonstrated a link between occupational Hg exposure and lupus.

In our studies, we have tested the hypothesis that Hg does not cause autoimmune disease directly, but rather that it may interact with triggering events, such as genetic predisposition, exposure to antigens, or infection, to exacerbate disease. Results of mice that are not susceptible to Hg-induced autoimmune disease with very low doses and short term exposures of inorganic Hg (20–200 μg/kg) exacerbates disease and accelerates mortality in the graft versus host disease model of chronic lupus in C57Bl/6 × DBA/2 mice. Furthermore, low dose Hg exposure increases the severity and prevalence of experimental autoimmune myocarditis (induced by immunization with cardiac myosin peptide in adjuvant) in A/J mice. To test our hypothesis further, we examined sera from Amazonian populations exposed to Hg through small-scale gold mining, with and without current or past malaria infection. We found significantly increased prevalence of antinuclear and antinucleolar antibodies and a positive interaction between Hg and malaria. These results suggest a new model for Hg immunotoxicity, as a co-factor in autoimmune disease, increasing the risks and severity of clinical disease in the presence of other triggering events, either genetic or acquired.