Assessing Sources of Human Methylmercury Exposure Using Stable Mercury Isotopes

Miling Li, Laura S Sherman, Joel D Blum, Philippe Grandjean, Bjarni Mikkelsen, Pál Weihe, Elsie M Sunderland, James P Shine

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Seafood consumption is the primary route of methylmercury (MeHg) exposure for most populations. Inherent uncertainties in dietary survey data point to the need for an empirical tool to confirm exposure sources. We therefore explore the utility of Hg stable isotope ratios in human hair as a new method for discerning MeHg exposure sources. We characterized Hg isotope fractionation between humans and their diets using hair samples from Faroese whalers exposed to MeHg predominantly from pilot whales. We observed an increase of 1.75‰ in δ(202)Hg values between pilot whale muscle tissue and Faroese whalers' hair but no mass-independent fractionation. We found a similar offset in δ(202)Hg between consumed seafood and hair samples from Gulf of Mexico recreational anglers who are exposed to lower levels of MeHg from a variety of seafood sources. An isotope mixing model was used to estimate individual MeHg exposure sources and confirmed that both Δ(199)Hg and δ(202)Hg values in human hair can help identify dietary MeHg sources. Variability in isotopic signatures among coastal fish consumers in the Gulf of Mexico likely reflects both differences in environmental sources of MeHg to coastal fish and uncertainty in dietary recall data. Additional data are needed to fully refine this approach for individuals with complex seafood consumption patterns.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology (Washington)
Issue number15
Pages (from-to)8800–8806
Publication statusPublished - 8. Jul 2014


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