BACKGROUND: In the Arctic, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) bio-accumulate mercury as they prey on polluted ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus). Studies have shown that polar bears from East Greenland are among the most mercury polluted species in the Arctic. It is unknown whether these levels are toxic to liver and kidney tissue. METHODS: We investigated the histopathological impact from anthropogenic long-range transported mercury on East Greenland polar bear liver (n = 59) and kidney (n = 57) tissues. RESULTS: Liver mercury levels ranged from 1.1-35.6 microg/g wet weight and renal levels ranged from 1-50 microg/g wet weight, of which 2 liver values and 9 kidney values were above known toxic threshold level of 30 microg/g wet weight in terrestrial mammals. Evaluated from age-correcting ANCOVA analyses, liver mercury levels were significantly higher in individuals with visible Ito cells (p < 0.02) and a similar trend was found for lipid granulomas (p = 0.07). Liver mercury levels were significantly lower in individuals with portal bile duct proliferation/fibrosis (p = 0.007) and a similar trend was found for proximal convoluted tubular hyalinisation in renal tissue (p = 0.07). CONCLUSION: Based on these relationships and the nature of the chronic inflammation we conclude that the lesions were likely a result of recurrent infections and ageing but that long-term exposure to mercury could not be excluded as a co-factor. The information is important as it is likely that tropospheric mercury depletion events will continue to increase the concentrations of this toxic heavy metal in the Sub Arctic and Arctic marine food webs.
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