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New findings about Thimerosal Neurotoxicity


Thimerosal (also known as thiomersal) is a mercury-containing organic compound (an organomercurial). Since the 1930s, it has been widely used as a preservative in a number of biological and drug products, including many vaccines, to help prevent potentially life threatening contamination with harmful microbes. Over the past several years, because of an increasing awareness of the theoretical potential for neurotoxicity of even low levels of organomercurials and because of the increased number of thimerosal containing vaccines that had been added to the infant immunization schedule, concerns about the use of thimerosal in vaccines and other products have been raised.
In 2001 Thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines routinely recommended for children 6 years of age and younger, with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine. However Rho D immunoglobulin shots containing Thimerosal are still recommended to pregnant women, and many vaccines given to children in developing countries and vaccines for adults still contain Thimerosal. Before 2001, the largest human exposure in the US was in children under 18 months of age undergoing routine child-hood immunization schedules. At that time, a child may have received a cumulative dose of over 200 µg/kg in the first 18 months of life. Although the neurotoxicity of methyl mercury has been relatively well studied, limited information is available on the relative neuro-developmental toxicity of ethylmercury, the mercury metabolite of Thimerosal.
The authors first examined the level of Thimerosal that would cause toxic damage to cells. They found that the higher the concentration of Thimerosal the greater the number of cells that were killed although the nerve cell response occurred with only a 3 hour exposure, whereas the other cell line required a 48 hour exposure demonstrating that nerve cells are more sensitive to Thimerosal toxicity. “In both cell lines, a progressive increase in cyto-toxicity (decrease in viability) was observed when Thimerosal dose was progressively doubled from 2.5 µmol/L to 5, 10, and 20 µmol/L. Viability was reduced more than 50% in both cell lines with exposure to 10 µmol/L Thimerosal and less than 10% of cells survived a dose of 20 µmol/L.” The authors note, “Thimerosal induces oxidative stress and apoptosis by activating mitochondrial cell death pathways.
The authors then pretreated cells with N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) before adding a dose of 15 µmol/L Thimerosal. They found that NAC “provided significant protection against cell death”. The authors conclude that, “numerous clinical studies have demonstrated the efficacy of NAC in increasing intracellular glutathione levels and reducing oxidative stress in humans. Since cytotoxicity with both ethyl- and methyl- mercury have been shown to be mediated by glutathione depletion, dietary supplements that increase intracellular glutathione could be envisioned as an effective intervention to reduce previous or anticipated exposure to mercury. This approach would be especially valuable in the elderly and in pregnant women receiving Rho D immunoglobulin shots, and individuals who regularly consume mercury-containing fish.”  

Michael Sperling

The original study:

S.J. James, William Slikker III, Stepan Melnyk, Elizabeth New, Marta Pogribna, Stefanie Jernigan, Thimerosal Neurotoxicity is Associated with Glutathione Depletion: Protection with Glutathione Precursors, NeuroToxicology, 26/1 (2005) 1-8. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuro.2004.07.012

Related Studies
Michael E Pichichero, Elsa Cernichiari, Joseph Lopreiato, John Treanor, Mercury concentrations and metabolism in infants receiving vaccines containing thimerosal: a descriptive study, The Lancet, 360 (2002) 1737-1741. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(02)11682-5

Johanna Qvarnström, Lars Lambertsson, Said Havarinasab, Per Hultman, Wolfgang Frech, Determination of Methylmercury, Ethylmercury, and Inorganic Mercury in Mouse Tissues, Following Administration of Thimerosal, by Species-Specific Isotope Dilution GC-Inductively Coupled Plasma-MS, Anal. Chem., 75/16 (2003) 4120-4124. DOI: 10.1021/ac0342370.

Chung-Wen Huang and Shiuh-Jen Jiang, Speciation of mercury by reversed-phase liquid chromatography with inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometric detection, J. Anal. At. Spectrom.,  8/5 (1993) 681 - 686. DOI: 10.1039/JA9930800681


Related EVISA Resources

 Related EVISA News (newest first)

January 14, 2013: United Nations Global Mercury Treaty: Fifth and final session
December 18, 2012: Pediatricians Argue to Keep Thimerosal in Some Vaccines
December 9, 2012: Mercury in fish more dangerous than previously believed; Scientists urge for effective treaty ahead of UN talks
October 12, 2012: Prenatal mercury intake linked to ADHD
July 15, 2012: World Health Organization Fails In Its Effort To Defend Mercury In Vaccines Before United Nations
October 28, 2011: WHO worries mercury treaty could affect costs and availability of vaccines
August 8, 2011: UNEP Global Mercury Treaty May Include Ban on Mercury in Medicine
July 15, 2009: New Study Finds: Thimerosal Induces Autism-like Neurotoxicity
March 24, 2006: Mercury Containing Preservative Alters Immune Function
March 24, 2006: American lawmakers initiate mercury probe for vaccines
April 27, 2005: New results about toxicity of thimerosal
February 11, 2005: New findings about Thimerosal Neurotoxicity

last time modified: June 18, 2020


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