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Environ Res. 2003 Jun;92(2):85-91.

Variability in human metabolism of arsenic.

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  • 1Program in Human Health and the Environment, Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA.


Estimating the nature and extent of human cancer risks due to arsenic (As) in drinking water is currently of great concern, since millions of persons worldwide are exposed to arsenic, primarily through natural enrichment of drinking water drawn from deep wells. Humans metabolize and eliminate As through oxidative methylation and subsequent urinary excretion. While there is debate as to the role of methylation in activation/detoxification, variations in arsenic metabolism may affect individual risks of toxicity and carcinogenesis. Using data from three populations, from Mexico, China, and Chile, we have analyzed the distribution in urine of total arsenic and arsenic species (inorganic arsenic (InAs), monomethyl arsenic (MMA), and dimethyl arsenic (DMA). Data were analyzed in terms of the concentration of each species and by evaluating MMA:DMA and (MMA+DMA):InAs ratios. In all persons most urinary As was present as DMA. Male:female differences were discernible in both high- and low-exposure groups from all three populations, but the gender differences varied by populations. The data also indicated bimodal distributions in the ratios of DMA to InAs and to MMA. While the gene or genes responsible for arsenic methylation are still unknown, the results of our studies among the ethnic groups in this study are consistent with the presence of functional genetic polymorphisms in arsenic methylation leading to measurable differences in toxicity. This analysis highlights the need for continuing research on the health effects of As in humans using molecular epidemiologic methods.

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