Associations between prenatal mercury exposure and early child development in the ALSPAC study

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There is evidence that high levels of mercury exposure to the pregnant woman can result in damage to the brain of the developing fetus. However there is uncertainty as to whether lower levels of the metal have adverse effects on the development of the infant and whether components of fish consumption and/or the selenium status of the woman is protective.


In this study we analysed data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) (n = 2875–3264) to determine whether levels of total blood mercury of pregnant women collected in the first half of pregnancy are associated with the development of the offspring at ages 6, 18, 30 and 42 months. The developmental measures used maternal self-reported scales for individual types of development (fine and gross motor, social and communication skills) and total scores. Multiple and logistic regression analyses treated the outcomes both as continuous and as suboptimal (the lowest 15th centile). The statistical analyses first examined the association of prenatal mercury exposure with these developmental endpoints and then adjusted each for a number of social and maternal lifestyle factors; finally this model was adjusted for the blood selenium level.


Total maternal prenatal blood mercury and selenium ranged from 0.17 to 12.76 and 17.0 to 324 μg/L respectively. We found no evidence to suggest that prenatal levels of maternal blood mercury were associated with adverse development of the child, even when the mother had consumed no fish during pregnancy. In general, the higher the mercury level the more advanced the development of the child within the range of exposure studied. For example, the fully adjusted effect sizes for total development at 6 and 42 months were +0.51 [95%CI +0.05, +1.00] and +0.43 [95%CI +0.08, +0.78] points per SD of mercury. For the risk of suboptimal development the ORs at these ages were 0.90 [95%CI 0.80, 1.02] and 0.88 [95%CI 0.77, 1.02]. In regard to the associations between blood mercury and child development there were no differences between the mothers who ate fish and those who did not, thus implying that the benefits were not solely due to the beneficial nutrients in fish.


We found no evidence of adverse associations between maternal prenatal blood mercury and child development between 6 and 42 months of age. The significant associations that were present were all in the beneficial direction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)215-222
Number of pages8
Early online date12 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Maternal blood mercury
  • Child Development
  • Selenium
  • Fish
  • Prenatal exposure


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