Skip to main content

Mercury Toxicity and the Mitigating Role of Selenium


Mercury is a well-known environmental toxicant, particularly in its most common organic form, methylmercury. Consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury is a dominant source of mercury exposure in humans and piscivorous wildlife. Considerable efforts have focused on assessment of mercury and its attendant risks in the environment and food sources, including the studies reported in this issue. However, studies of mercury intoxication have frequently failed to consider the protective effects of the essential trace element, selenium. Mercury binds to selenium with extraordinarily high affinity, and high maternal exposures inhibit selenium-dependent enzyme activities in fetal brains. However, increased maternal dietary selenium intakes preserve these enzyme activities, thereby preventing the pathological effects that would otherwise arise in their absence. Recent evidence indicates that assessments of mercury exposure and tissue levels need to consider selenium intakes and tissue distributions in order to provide meaningful risk evaluations.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Bulato C, Bosello V, Ursini F, Maiorino M (2007) Effect of mercury on selenium utilization and selenoperoxidase activity in LNCaP cells. Free Radical Biology and Medicine 42:118–123

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Chapman L, Chan HM (2000) The influence of nutrition on methylmercury intoxication. Environmental Health Perspectives 108:29–56

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Chen C, Yu H, Zhao J, Li B, Qu L, Liu S, et al. (2006) The roles of serum selenium and selenoproteins on mercury toxicity in environmental and occupational exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives 114:297–301

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Chen CY, Serrell N, Evers DC, Fleishman BJ, Lambert KF, Weiss J, et al. (2008) Methylmercury in marine ecosystems: from sources to seafood consumers—a workshop report. Environmental Health Perspectives; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1121

  • Cuvin-Aralar ML, Furness RW (1991) Mercury and selenium interaction: a review. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 21:348–364

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Driscoll C, Han YJ, Chen CY, Evers DC, Lambert KF, Holsen TM, et al. (2007) Mercury contamination in forest and freshwater ecosystems in the northeastern United States. Bioscience 57:17–28

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dyrssen D, Wedborg M (1991) The sulfur–mercury(II) system in natural waters. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 56:507–519

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Falnoga I, Tusek-Znidaric M, Stegnar P (2006) The influence of long-term mercury exposure on selenium availability in tissues: an evaluation of data. BioMetals 19:283–294

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Koelman JH, Peeters WHM, Koudstaal-Hol CHM (1973) Mercury-selenium correlations in marine mammals. Nature 245:385–386

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kosta L, Byrne AR, Zelenko V (1975) Correlation between selenium and mercury in man following exposure to inorganic mercury. Nature 254:238–239

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Mergler D, Anderson HA, Chan HM, Mahaffey KR, Murray M, Sakamoto M, et al. (2007) Methylmercury exposure and health effects in humans: a worldwide concern. Ambio 36:3–11

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Mostert V, Lombeck I, Abel J (1998). A novel method for the purification of Selenoprotein P from human plasma. Archives of Biochemisty and Biophysics 357:326-330

    Google Scholar 

  • Ralston NVC, Blackwell JL, Raymond LJ (2007) Importance of molar ratios in selenium-dependent protection against methylmercury toxicity. Biological Trace Element Research 119:255–268

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Ralston NVC, Ralston CR, Blackwell JL III, Raymond LJ (2008) Dietary and tissue selenium in relation to methylmercury toxicity. Neurotoxicology 29:802–811

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Raymond LJ, Ralston NVC (2004) Mercury: selenium interactions and health implications. Seychelles Medical and Dental Journal 7:72–77

    Google Scholar 

  • Sasakura C, Suzuki KT (1998) Biological interaction between transition metals (Ag, Cd and Hg), selenide/sulfide and selenoprotein P. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 71:159–162

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Scheuhammer AM, Meyer MW, Sandheinrich MB, Murray MW (2007) Effects of environmental methylmercury on the health of wild birds, mammals, and fish. Ambio 36:12–18

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Sunderland EM (2007) Mercury exposure from domestic and imported estuarine and marine fish in the U.S. seafood market. Environmental Health Perspectives 115:235–242

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Takeuchi T, Morikawa N, Matsumoto H, Shiraishi Y (1962) A pathological study of Minamata disease in Japan. Acta Neuropathologica 2:40–57

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Watanabe C, Yoshida K, Kasanuma Y, Kun Y, Satoh H (1999) In utero methylmercury exposure differentially affects the activities of selenoenzymes in the fetal mouse brain. Environmental Research 80:208–214

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Yan J, Barrett JN (1998). Purification from Bovine serum of a survival-promoting factor for cultured central neurons and its identification as Selenoprotein-P. Journal of Neuroscience 18:8682-8691

    Google Scholar 

  • Yoneda S, Suzuki KT (1997) Equimolar Hg-Se complex binds to selenoprotein P. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 231: 7–11

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


MJB is supported by the NIH. NVCR is supported by the EPA and NOAA.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Marla J. Berry.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Berry, M.J., Ralston, N.V.C. Mercury Toxicity and the Mitigating Role of Selenium. EcoHealth 5, 456–459 (2008).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • mercury
  • selenium
  • toxicity
  • environment
  • heavy metals