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Mercury is one of the most toxic metals and occurs throughout the environment as a consequence of natural sources and human activity. Mercury species are broadly classified into three categories (the metallic form, also called the elemental form, the divalent inorganic forms, and organic mercury compounds), which have different toxicokinetic properties.

The selection of biological media to assess human exposure depends on the mercury compounds, exposure pattern (e.g. chronic, acute) and time of sampling after the exposure. Exposure to elemental mercury is well represented by the presence of mercury in urine. Scalp hair has widely been used as a good indicator of methyl mercury exposure through the diet. As a biomarker of prenatal exposure, mercury in umbilical cord blood and not maternal blood is measured preferentially. In the blood, methyl mercury accumulates mainly in the red blood cells, while an exposure to elemental mercury leads to increased concentration of mercury in the plasma. Therefore, through the analysis of total mercury in these blood samples it is possible to differentiate between exposure to elemental and methyl mercury.

Although the poisoning nature of mercury is well acknowledged, less known are the effects of mercury on humans as a consequence of long term exposure to low concentrations. In many cases the use of biomarkers, such as mercury concentrations in blood and urine, is not sufficient to assess the internal doses and potential effects on the central nervous system, kidney, the immune system, and other possible effects. Therefore, better scientific understanding of risks to human health, especially to those citizens living close to potentially contaminated sites and those exposed to low levels over a long period of time, is needed.

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