OBJECTIVE--The aim was to study whether functional impairment of the pituitary, thyroid, testes, and adrenal glands of humans occupationally exposed to mercury (Hg) vapour can be shown as a result of accumulation of Hg in these glands. METHODS--Basal concentrations of thyrotrophin (TSH), prolactin, free thyroxine (free T4), free 3,5,3'-triiodothyronine (free T3), antibodies against thyroperoxidase, and testosterone in serum, as well as cortisol in morning urine were measured in 41 chloralkali workers exposed (10 years on average) to Hg vapour, and in 41 age matched occupationally unexposed referents. The chloralkali workers had a mean urinary Hg concentration (U-Hg) of 15 nmol/mmol (27 micrograms/g) creatinine, and a mean blood Hg concentration (B-Hg) of 46 nmol/l. For the reference group U-Hg and B-Hg were 1.9 nmol/mmol (3.3 micrograms/g) creatinine and 17 nmol/l respectively. RESULTS--The serum free T4 concentration and the ratio free T4/free T3 were slightly, but significantly, higher in the subgroups with the highest exposure, and the serum free T3 was inversely associated with cumulative Hg exposure. This indicates a possible inhibitory effect of mercury on 5'-deiodinases, which are responsible for the conversion of T4 to the active hormone T3. Serum total testosterone, but not free testosterone, was positively correlated with cumulative Hg exposure. Prolactin, TSH and urinary cortisol concentrations were not significantly associated to exposure. CONCLUSION--Apart from inhibition of the deiodination of T4 to T3, the endocrine functions studied seem not to be affected by exposure to Hg vapour at the exposure levels of the present study. Growth hormone secretion was not studied.
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