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Thimerosal – toxicity, side effects, diseases and environmental impacts

Saturday, November 11, 2017 by

Thimerosal, also known as thiomersal, is a mercury- and thiosalicylate-containing organic compound with antiseptic, bactericidal, and fungicidal properties. As such, thimerosal has been utilized as an anti-microbial preservative in various pharmaceutical products since the 1930s, including but not limited to vaccines, skin test antigens, and antivenins. Its inclusion in vaccines continued until 1999, whereupon it was agreed that thimerosal should either be limited in or phased out of vaccines for safety purposes. Nowadays, the thimerosal content of pediatric vaccines in the United States and countries under the European Union (EU) are restricted to trace amounts or none at all.

List of known side effects

Certain individuals sensitive to thimerosal can experience localized allergic contact dermatitis. This condition is marked by itchy red patches and swelling at the area that came into contact with thimerosal. Most allergic reactions to this substance are mild, however, and will typically resolve themselves after several days.

Another instance of thimerosal causing detrimental skin conditions was that of five infants developing atopic dermatitis following childhood vaccination. These children had cutaneous lesions of nummular eczema on their faces, limbs, and trunks. The atopic dermatitis was reported to have disappeared in the two-year follow-up observation.

In addition to being a rather severe skin irritant, thimerosal is mild eye irritant as well. It’s known to be quite hazardous when inhaled or ingested, and extreme overexposure via either methods of entry into the body can be fatal.

High doses of acute thimerosal poisoning have been linked to acute mercury poisoning. At least six record cases have occurred since 1977, with victims showing signs of central nervous system injury, acute renal tubular necrosis, acute hemolysis, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and local necrosis. Some of the victims had become comatose or died as a result.

Body systems affected by thimerosal

Thimerosal can be toxic to the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Prolonged and/or repeated exposure to thimerosal greatly increases the risk of this substance causing damage to these organs.

Moreover, thimerosal is a known irritant of the skin, eyes, respiratory, and digestive systems.

Items that can contain thimerosal

While rare in vaccines, thimerosal can be found in many other everyday objects, namely:

  • Antiseptic sprays
  • Eye moisturizers
  • Eye shadows
  • Immune globulin preparations
  • Make-up removers
  • Mascaras
  • Nose, eye, and ear medications (Both prescription and over-the-counter)
  • Soap-free cleansers
  • Topical medications

How to avoid thimerosal

Check the labels of these products to see if they contain thimerosal. This substance can go by a variety of names, which include:

  • Mercurochrome
  • Mercurothiolate
  • Mercury, ((o-carboxyphenyl)thio)ethyl-, sodium salt
  • Mercury, ethyl(2-mercaptobenzoato-s)-, sodium salt
  • Merthiolate
  • Sodium ethylmercurithiosalicylate
  • Sodium2-(ethylmercurithio)benzoate
  • Thiomersalan
  • Thiomersalate

Those who handle and store thimerosal should always wear the appropriate protective clothing around this substance. When storing thimerosal, ensure that the container is resistant to light, tightly closed, and kept in a cool, well-ventilated area.

In the event that a thimerosal spill occurs, consult a specialist on the proper disposal methods. Wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus is also recommended to avoid breathing in thimerosal.

Where to learn more


Thimerosal is a known skin irritant, and can cause the flare-up of such skin conditions as atopic dermatitis and localized allergic contact dermatitis. It can irritate the eyes, digestive, and respiratory systems too.

High doses of thimerosal poisoning can lead to mercury poisoning.

Thimerosal has been found to be toxic to the central nervous system, liver, kidney, and bone marrow.

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