Selenium–Mercury Interactions in Man and Animals


Selenium–mercury interactions were most extensively studied in relation to alleviation of Hg toxicity by added selenium. This presentation considers the influence of mercury on endogenous selenium, on its tissue and cellular “status” after lifelong or acute exposure to mercury vapor (Hgo). Discussed are data obtained from (1) humans living near or working in a mercury mine, and (2) rats experimentally exposed in the mine. Mercury vapor is unique—or similar to methylmercury—because of its ability to penetrate cell membranes and so invade all cells, where it is oxidized in the biologically active form (Hg++) by catalase. Such in situ-generated ions can react with endogenously generated highly reactive Se metabolites, like HSe−, and render a part of the selenium unavailable for selenoprotein synthesis. Data on human populations indicate that in moderate Hg exposure combined with an adequate selenium supply through diet, Se bioavailability can be preserved. On the other hand, the results of an acute exposure study emphasize the dual role of selenium in mercury detoxification. Besides the well-known Se coaccumulation through formation of nontoxic Hg–Se complexes, we observed noticeable Se (co)excretion, at least at the beginning of exposure. The higher Hg accumulation rate in the group of animals with lower basal selenium levels can also point to selenium involvement in mercury excretion. In such conditions there is a higher probability for decreased selenoprotein levels (synthesis) in some tissues or organs, depending on the synthesis hierarchy.

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The authors wish to thank to the whole group working on Idrija mercury subject during the last 40 years:

Dr. Alfred B. Kobal—researcher and medical doctor responsible for the health of miners after the Second World War until the closer of mine; Dr. Anthony R. Byrne—responsible for radiochemistry, development, and application of analytical techniques for Hg and Se, a coauthor of the first publication about Hg and Se coaccumulation in molar ratio 1:1 in human organs [4]; Dr. Peter Stegnar—former head of department and our Ph.D. supervisor and Dr. Mirjana Škreblin—working on metabolism of mercury in man, animals and plants; Nuša Prosenc—for Hg, Se determinations by RNAA; Dr. Milena Horvat—present head of department and expert for biogeochemical cycling and analytical chemistry of Hg; and Dr. Sitibilj Vekoslava—expert for selenium speciation.

Their work was published in several publications and is cited in the present article.

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Correspondence to Ingrid Falnoga.

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Falnoga, I., Tušek-Žnidarič, M. Selenium–Mercury Interactions in Man and Animals. Biol Trace Elem Res 119, 212–220 (2007).

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  • Selenium
  • Mercury
  • Interactions
  • Human
  • Rat
  • Organs
  • Selenoprotein P
  • Plasma/Serum
  • GPx
  • Melatonin