Mercury compounds and the immune system: a review.
Regional Hospital Immunological Laboratory, Brzesko, Poland.
This article reviews the literature data concerning the immunologic monitoring of animals and cell cultures exposed to mercury compounds. Mercury is present in nature as metallic mercury, mono- and bivalent inorganic compounds, and organic alkyl, aryl and alloxy-alkyl compounds. Methylmercury is most important in terms of environmental exposure while metallic mercury is the most common form to which workers are exposed. The database on immune function disturbances in human induced by mercury compounds is limited. Immunotoxicity assessment in animals, mainly in rodents, with subsequent extrapolation to man, is the basis of human risk assessment. The strength of in vitro immunotoxicity testing lies in studies aimed at unravelling mechanisms of immunotoxicity. These experimental investigations show clearly that mercury compounds can have immunomodulating activity. Mercuric chloride and methylmercury inhibit most of animal and human lymphocyte functions including proliferation, expression of cell activation markers on cell surface and cytokine production. These cells exhibit a greater sensitivity to the immunotoxic effects of methylmercury than to mercuric chloride. Repeated administration of mercuric chloride to rats, mice and rabbits can induce autoimmune response and a membranous nephropathy. In contrast, Lewis rats injected with mercuric chloride do not develop autoimmunity but exhibit immunosuppression. The immunosuppressive effects associated with exposure to chemical substances are often accompanied by increased susceptibility to challenge with infectious agents or tumour cells.