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Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Mar;110(3):263-8.

The relationship between lead in plasma and whole blood in women.

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  • 1Environmental Toxicology, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95604, USA.


Studies have suggested that plasma lead levels may better reflect the toxicologically labile fraction of circulatory Pb that is more freely available for exchange with target tissues than do Pb levels in whole blood. Studies have also reported an apparent severalfold variation in the relative partitioning of Pb between whole blood and plasma (or serum) for a given whole-blood Pb level. This may reflect inherent differences in the plasma Pb/whole blood Pb partitioning among individuals and/or methodologic challenges associated with the collection and analyses of samples that generally contain < 1-2 ng total Pb. Here, we conducted a longitudinal assessment of the relationship between Pb in whole blood and plasma in environmentally exposed reproductive-age women (n = 63) living in Mexico City, Mexico. We collected whole blood and plasma samples using trace metal clean techniques and analyzed them for Pb using high-resolution inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. A subset of subjects provided repeated blood samples weekly for 4 consecutive weeks (n = 17 subjects) or every 1-2 months over a 9-month period (n = 14 subjects). Plasma Pb concentration was significantly positively associated with whole-blood Pb in a curvilinear fashion over the range of blood Pb values observed here (2.13-39.7 microg/dL). This relationship was best described by the function Plasma Pb = e (-2.392 + 0.0898 x blood Pb), where SE(coefficient) = 0.0054, SE(constant) = 0.063 (n = 63 subjects, n = 141 observations). Results from the short- and long-term repeated collection subjects indicated that the within- and between-subject variance components were not significantly different between the two subsets of subjects. The between-subjects component accounts for 78% of the variance in plasma Pb levels, while the residual variance (22%) may be attributed to other unmeasured factors. Collectively, this study demonstrates that plasma Pb measurements may be applied to general clinical settings, provided that established trace metal clean techniques are adopted. This study also shows that the relative (%) partitioning of whole-blood Pb in plasma naturally varies by a factor of about 2-4-fold among subjects at a given blood Pb level. Because Pb in the plasma is considered to more closely represent the fraction of Pb in the circulation that is readily exchanged with peripheral target tissues (e.g., brain, kidney, skeleton), the routine assessment of plasma Pb may provide a more meaningful measure of toxicologically available Pb.

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