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Mercury in High-Fructose Corn Syrup: What Does It All Mean?

Corn in everything By Scott Laster, SafeMinds

Mercury at chlor-alkali manufacturing plants represents one of the main sources of anthropogenic mercury (i.e. mercury contamination originating from human activities).  This source of mercury contamination will be gaining more attention in 2009 with the reintroduction of a bill in Congress to stop this unnecessary mercury exposure.

Since the late-1800’s, chlor-alkali plants have used large vats containing several tons of elemental mercury as a catalyst to convert salt water into common chemicals such as caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), potash (potassium hydroxide), chlorine gas, chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite), hydrogen gas, and hydrochloric acid.  It is well-established in the chemical industry that this process causes some level of mercury contamination in those chemicals.  Further, chlor-alkali plants have been the source of extensive mercury contamination via emissions and waste-water effluent, such as the Minimata mercury poisoning incident in Japan.  Mercury emissions are measured and accounted for at U.S. chlor-alkali plants.  An additional 20 - 100 tons of mercury annually has been unaccounted for (“lost”, but not due to emissions), with some of this mercury contaminating consumer products. Advances in technology have successfully allowed these plants to cost-effectively convert to a mercury-free process.  However, as this technology’s use is not federally mandated, there are chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. that continue to use the mercury-based process.  Plants using mercury as a catalyst are called “mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants”, and chemicals produced at those plants are known as “mercury-grade” (e.g. “mercury-grade caustic soda”) or alternatively as “rayon-grade”. 

Chlor-alkali chemicals are widely utilized as an ingredient in consumer products as diverse as polyurethane flooring, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and food additives such as MSG, sodium benzoate, and potassium benzoate.  Chlor-alkali chemicals are also used to process the raw ingredients and to adjust pH levels in many chemical processes, including most notably the corn wet-milling process that produces High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), dextrose, corn starch, and other corn sweeteners for human consumption.  Corn wet-milling products are used to produce citric acid and aspartame (NutraSweet).   Corn wet-milling products not destined for human consumption are used as livestock feed for cattle, turkeys, pigs, and chickens.  Chlor-alkali chemicals are also used to produce products such as pharmaceuticals, bleach, and toothpaste, and are important for water purification.

The industrial standard on chlor-alkali products allows for up to 1 ppm (part per million) of mercury in caustic soda and 0.5 ppm mercury in hydrochloric acid.   Mercury contamination in these chemicals makes its way into common products.  For example, some types of polyurethane flooring used in schools contain mercury and may give off mercury vapors, especially when damaged (see section 10.2 of the CDC ATSDR report HERE). 

Potentially more ominous is the mercury contamination in the food supply.  A peer-reviewed study by Renee Dufault et al was published in January 2009 on mercury levels in HFCS (see HERE).  The HFCS samples, which were collected at the FDA in 2005, contained total mercury in the 0.000 – 0.570 mcg Hg per gram of HFCS (i.e. 0.000 – 0.570 ppm).  As comparison, fish at 1 ppm methylmercury exceed the FDA action level and are not allowed to be sold.  Per capita consumption of corn sweeteners grew rapidly from 9 to 40 grams (2 to 10 teaspoons) per day from 1978-1985, primarily due to introduction of HFCS into soft drinks and dextrose into foodstuffs, and is currently at about 50 grams (12 teaspoons) per day.   Corn sweeteners are used as a primary ingredient in a wide range of food products, including many that are not readily obvious, such as the dextrose used in IV feeding solutions for premature infants and certain types of baby formula.  Further, per the Dufault study, there seems to have been a preference by corn sweetener producers to utilize mercury-grade caustic soda (rather than other grades of caustic soda) due to its preservative qualities.  The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) claims that their members had all switched from using mercury-grade caustic soda as of several years ago.  Given the results of the Dufault study, the CRA claim presumably would mean that the manufacturers with mercury-contaminated HFCS in the study have converted to other grades of caustic soda since 2005.  To date, CRA has yet to provide tangible evidence that these conversions have occurred, or when they occurred.  The non-profit Institute for Agriculture Trade & Policy recently published test results of mercury levels in grocery products in 4th quarter 2008 containing HFCS, as part of a report that provides a good explanation of the overall issue (see “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup” HERE).  Questions have been raised about whether those test results indicate that mercury-grade caustic soda is still utilized today in the production of corn sweeteners in the USA. 

SafeMinds has been investigating whether past, or ongoing, contamination of the food supply by chlor-alkali mercury has contributed to the increase in neurological disorders. The type of mercury in HFCS is unknown but indications are that the type is not methylmercury, the type of organic mercury found in fish.  Methylmercury ingestion has been extensively studied, but there has been much less research on the effects of ingestion of other forms of mercury that might theoretically be derived from mercury-grade caustic soda and hydrochloric acid such as mercury salts (e.g. mercuric hydroxide, mercuric chloride).  There are numerous possibilities as to how a daily regimen of ingested mercury might have contributed to the autism epidemic, perhaps laying the groundwork for the damage done by the increased vaccine schedule of the late 1980’s.  Could ingested mercury have damaged the immune system, similar to how ethylmercury damaged dendritic cells in Dr. Isaac Pessah’s research in 2006 (“Uncoupling of ATP-Mediated Calcium Signaling and Disregulated IL-6 Secretion in Dendritic Cells by Nanomolar Thimerosal”, July 2006 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives)?  Could ingested mercury have contributed to low glutathione levels, reducing the natural protection against toxins?  Could ingested mercury have damaged mitochondrial function?  What are other hypotheses?  Comments and suggestions would be appreciated.  With the support of our community, we’ll keep working on this issue to get answers.

As for stopping this mercury contamination, there is potentially good news.  Oceana is an environmental organization that has been pressing for a ban on the use of mercury in chlor-alkali production.  Oceana has produced informative reports on when certain USA chlor-alkali plants have converted to mercury-free manufacturing and which ones still utilize the mercury chlor-alkali process (see HERE).  In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama sponsored an Oceana-inspired bill to eliminate the mercury-cell chlor-alkali manufacturing process.  Indications are that Oceana plans to re-introduce this bill in the current session of Congress.  Internationally, governments are encouraging or mandating the conversion of chlor-alkali plants to mercury-free technology. 

Mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants represent a major source of mercury contamination that is totally unnecessary given that more cost-efficient mercury-free processes have been available for decades, and common sense dictates that they should be eliminated expeditiously.  SafeMinds asks for the support of our community on this issue and will continue to report on developments that will eliminate this unnecessary exposure.

Scott Laster is an engineer, a SafeMinds board member, and chair of the SafeMinds Environmental Committee.  The SafeMinds Environmental Committee is tasked with raising awareness on environmental mercury exposures that may be contributing to autism prevalence.  Scott lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.


Barbra Bendula

MY son IS sick with seizures .Robbie is 15 .HE was 11 months when he had his first seizure after he got his mmr shot. then another seizure at 15 months moreshots.his docter told me NO MORE SHOTS for Robbie. Thankyou [email protected]

Scott Laster

The response by Dufault et al to Stopford's statement regarding the industry-funded lab testing can be found at


The work by Safeminds on this issue cannot be understated. It is important. Neurotoxin exposure at parts per million is a threat to human health. And neurotoxin exposure at parts per trillion is a threat to human health. In both cases Avagadro’s number calculations provide alarmingly high numbers of mercury atoms going into children’s bodies.

This seems to go to the old cliché that two wrongs do not make a right.

Or more succinctly, yes--second hand smoke.

Media Scholarini'


I saw the same paper and quickly noticed that high fructose corn syrup was not a good source of Hg exposure or this was a fake paper cleverly designed by chemical company ambulance chasers to look like it has scientific legitimacy.

This was not necessarily designed to simply to control both sides of the issue, but rather the hidden agenda was to exonerate Thimerosal by omission.

The fact that the authors preach and preach about methylmercury and not a single mention about ethylmercury means something.

Check out the bottom of page 11. Try the spirit, as it is often suggested, and I think you will see.

It's clear by absense, especially under the sub-header Mercury and Public Health, the authors deliberately excluded Thimerosal to protect it.

It all ties in nicely with the current blitzkreig "we need to move on" tactic organized by the wrong side.

Second-hand coke?

paula p proffit merckelous

While I think we should controll all exposures this seems to serve as a nice distraction from the actual culprit..... The direct injection of mercury into infants.



Thank you for the information.

Compare the mercury levels in the oatmeal tested (350 parts per trillion mercury) to the multi dose flu shot (50,000,000 parts per trillion mercury based on 25 micrograms of mercury per 0.5 gram of flu shot). Then use 43 grams for a single serving packet of oatmeal.

This calculates out to 1661 contaminated oatmeal servings in one day to get the same amount of mercury as the shot.

See and:

Equation one: 350 x 10(-12) x 43 = 0.01505 micrograms of mercury in a single contaminated oatmeal serving

Equation two: 25 x 10(-6) = 25 micrograms of mercury in a single multidose flu shot

Equation three: (25 micrograms)/(0.01505 micrograms) = 1661 ratio

It is well established by the USEPA that any mercury is harmful. The FDA should see that it is taken out of both food and vaccines.


There is an important update to this story of which you should be aware.
A leading, national expert on mercury from Duke University Medical Center, Dr. Stopford, just posted a statement that reviews lab results from independent, third-party testing that was conducted on high fructose corn syrup.
Dr. Stopford noted that there were no quantifiable levels of mercury found in high fructose corn syrup.
Dr. Stopford concludes that:
No quantifiable mercury was detected in any of the samples analyzed.
High fructose corn syrup does not appear to be a measureable contributor to mercury in foods.
It is important that the American public receive accurate, science-based information about this topic. High fructose corn syrup has now been reaffirmed by recent independent testing and review by a national leading expert on mercury.
The testing was very rigorous: third-party labs tested product from all 22 of the production facilities in the United States and Canada. The testing started in February and was completed this week.

Heidi N

It's really sad that we are consuming mercury without even knowing about it. My gratitude goes out to all those hard-working at elminating mercury, and this is a great article!


It's been so disillusioning to hear public health officials defend mercury in vaccines as a "tiny amount," heedless of its toxic effect both at nanomolar levels and in combination with other sources. Over time it all adds up to a big body burden of poison.


Incredibly interesting, certainly explaining one more way our children fill up their toxic buckets, then finally break.
It is astounding to read how much was have increased our intake of HFCS in recent years.
Great read.


It seems that many things can boost the toxicity of in addition to our children having so many more vaccines our kids antibiotics for ear infections is troublesome and we used to add corn syrup to our sons bottle feedings to help with his constipation seemed to help with keeping him regular (it was advice that came from our parents since that was what they used to do) but perhaps that ALSO boosted the mercury levels.

Media Scholar

I haven't come across a single parent who actually claims their kid became autistic from chugging a coke. Still, thank goodness they aren't directly injecting this stuff into infants and toddlers like Thimerosal.

Thimerosal is still being injected into babies. They're just telling America it isn't.

Scott Laster

Julie, I'll find out more about whether the school with high number of teachers having children with Autism had a floor like this.

Regarding baby formula, our investigation thus far indicates that dextrose (a corn sweetener made by the same process that produces HFCS) is a primary ingredient in soy-based baby formula.



Excellent information Scott. Thanks for laying it out in easy-to-understand terminology.

Julie Obradovic

Very informative, Scott. A few things stuck out at me while reading.

"For example, some types of polyurethane flooring used in schools contain mercury and may give off mercury vapors, especially when damaged (see section 10.2 of the CDC ATSDR report HERE)."

It would be interesting to find out if the school that David Kirby investigated a while back due to the high number of teachers having children with Autism had a floor like this. As a teacher who was teaching in a room with a damaged floor while pregnant with her affected child, I can't help but wonder. (And right now, our school is undergoing massive renovations including floor removal.)

Also this,
"Corn sweeteners are used as a primary ingredient in a wide range of food products, including many that are not readily obvious, such as the dextrose used in IV feeding solutions for premature infants and certain types of baby formula."

Is there any way to find out what types of baby formula that is? I would love to know.

Thanks again. The combination of living 5 miles from a coal mining plant...have 13 amalgam fillings...eating tuna fish while breast feeding...and possibly being exposed to mercury at my school through the about a set up for disaster. A few thimerosal containing vaccines and we were done. Our regression began at 6 months of age. No wonder...



I really fear stuff like this is going to confound any unvac/vac. study. Especially as the unvaccinated younger siblings of children with autism are likely to have the same problems with mercury regarless of the source.

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