Exposure to mercury through seafood may be associated with an autoimmune risk.

seaThe University of Michigan has released a study which raises serious questions concerning the exposure of mercury through seafood. The study specifically cites that mercury, even at low levels considered safe, is associated with autoimmunity.

Autoimmune disorders cause the body’s immune system to attach healthy cells by mistake and affect nearly 50 million Americans, predominantly women. They can include conditions such inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

“We don’t have a very good sense of why people develop autoimmune disorders,” said lead author Emily Somers, Ph.D., Sc.M, an associate professor in the departments of in the division of Rheumatology, , and Obstetrics & Gynecology at the U-M Medical and Public Health Schools.

“A large number of cases are not explained by genetics, so we believe studying environmental factors will help us understand why autoimmunity happens and how we may be able to intervene to improve health outcomes. In our study, exposure to mercury stood out as the main risk factor for autoimmunity.”

The consisted of women ages 16-49 from the National Health and Examination Survey from 1999-2004. The mercy effect was dose dependent with greater exposure to mercury associated with a higher rate of autoantibodies, a precursor to autoimmune disease. Autoantibodies are proteins made by a person’s immune system when it cannot distinguish between its own tissues and possibly harmful cells.

“The of autoantibodies doesn’t necessarily mean they will lead to an autoimmune disease,” Somers said. “However, we know that autoantibodies are significant predictors of future autoimmune disease, and may predate the symptoms and diagnosis of an autoimmune disease by years”. “For women of childbearing age, who are at particular risk of developing this type of disease, it may be especially important to keep track of seafood consumption.”


Emily C. Somers, Martha A. Ganser, Jeffrey S. Warren, Niladri Basu, Lu Wang, Suzanna M. Zick, Sung Kyun Park. Mercury Exposure and Antinuclear Antibodies among Females of Reproductive Age in the United States: NHANES. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1408751

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