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Environ Health Perspect. 1996 Jun; 104(6): 620–628.
PMCID: PMC1469390
Research Article

Methylation study of a population environmentally exposed to arsenic in drinking water.


Methylation is considered the detoxification pathway for inorganic arsenic (InAs), an established human carcinogen. Urinary speciation analysis is used to assess the distribution of metabolites [monomethylarsonate (MMA), dimethylarsinate (DMA), and unmethylated arsenic (InAs)], as indicators of methylation capacity. We conducted a large biomarker study in northern Chile of a population chronically exposed to high levels of arsenic in drinking water. We report the results of the methylation study, which focused on the effects of exposure and other variables on the percent InAs, MMA, DMA, and the ratio of MMA to DMA in urine. The study consisted of 122 people in a town with arsenic water levels around 600 micrograms/l and 98 participants in a neighboring town with arsenic levels in water of about 15 micrograms/l. The corresponding mean urinary arsenic levels were 580 micrograms/l and 60 micrograms/l, of which 18.4% and 14.9% were InAs, respectively. The main differences were found for MMA:DMA; exposure, smoking, and being male were associated with higher MMA:DMA, while longer residence, Atacameño ethnicity, and being female were associated with lower MMA:DMA. Together, these variables explained about 30% of the variability in MMA:DMA. Overall, there was no evidence of a threshold for methylation capacity, even at very high exposures, and the interindividual differences were within a much wider range than those attributed to the variables investigated. The differences in percent InAs were small and within the ranges of other studies of background exposure levels. The biological significance of MMA:DMA, which was more than 1.5 times greater in the exposed group, and its relationship to sex, length of exposure, and ethnicity need further investigation because its relevance to health risk is not clear.

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