Mercury and methylmercury in food


total mercury, methylmercury, inorganic mercury, tolerable weekly intake, risk assessment, fish, food
First published in the EFSA Journal
20 December 2012
22 November 2012
Scientific Opinion

EFSA was asked by the European Commission to consider new developments regarding inorganic mercury and methylmercury toxicity and evaluate whether the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) provisional tolerable weekly intakes for methylmercury of 1.6 µg/kg body weight (b.w.) and of 4 µg/kg b.w. for inorganic mercury were still appropriate. In line with JECFA, the CONTAM Panel established a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) for inorganic mercury of 4 µg/kg b.w., expressed as mercury. For methylmercury, new developments in epidemiological studies from the Seychelles Child Developmental Study Nutrition Cohort have indicated that n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may counteract negative effects from methylmercury exposure. Together with the information that beneficial nutrients in fish may have confounded previous adverse outcomes in child cohort studies from the Faroe Islands, the Panel established a TWI for methylmercury of 1.3 µg/kg b.w., expressed as mercury. The mean dietary exposure across age groups does not exceed the TWI for methylmercury, with the exception of toddlers and other children in some surveys. The 95th percentile dietary exposure is close to or above the TWI for all age groups. High fish consumers, which might include pregnant women, may exceed the TWI by up to approximately six-fold. Unborn children constitute the most vulnerable group. Biomonitoring data from blood and hair indicate that methylmercury exposure is generally below the TWI in Europe, but higher levels are also observed. Exposure to methylmercury above the TWI is of concern. If measures to reduce methylmercury exposure are considered, the potential beneficial effects of fish consumption should also be taken into account. Dietary inorganic mercury exposure in Europe does not exceed the TWI, but inhalation exposure of elemental mercury from dental amalgam is likely to increase the internal inorganic mercury exposure; thus the TWI might be exceeded.

Panel members at the time of adoption
Diane Benford, Sandra Ceccatelli, Bruce Cottrill, Michael DiNovi, Eugenia Dogliotti, Lutz Edler, Peter Farmer, Peter Fürst, Laurentius (Ron) Hoogenboom, Helle Katrine Knutsen, Anne-Katrine Lundebye Haldorsen, Manfred Metzler, Carlo Stefano Nebbia, Michael O’Keeffe, Ivonne Rietjens, Dieter Schrenk, Vittorio Silano, Hendrik van Loveren, Christiane Vleminckx, and Pieter Wester
Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain
contam [at]
EFSA Journal 2012;10(12):2985 [241 pp.].
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European Commission
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