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Environ Health. 2005 Oct 3;4:20.

Inter-individual variations of human mercury exposure biomarkers: a cross-sectional assessment.

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Department of Metals and Health, Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Box 210, SE-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden.



Biomarkers for mercury (Hg) exposure have frequently been used to assess exposure and risk in various groups of the general population. We have evaluated the most frequently used biomarkers and the physiology on which they are based, to explore the inter-individual variations and their suitability for exposure assessment.


Concentrations of total Hg (THg), inorganic Hg (IHg) and organic Hg (OHg, assumed to be methylmercury; MeHg) were determined in whole blood, red blood cells, plasma, hair and urine from Swedish men and women. An automated multiple injection cold vapour atomic fluorescence spectrophotometry analytical system for Hg analysis was developed, which provided high sensitivity, accuracy, and precision. The distribution of the various mercury forms in the different biological media was explored.


About 90% of the mercury found in the red blood cells was in the form of MeHg with small inter-individual variations, and part of the IHg found in the red blood cells could be attributed to demethylated MeHg. THg in plasma was associated with both IHg and MeHg, with large inter-individual variations in the distribution between red blood cells and plasma. THg in hair reflects MeHg exposure at all exposure levels, and not IHg exposure. The small fraction of IHg in hair is most probably emanating from demethylated MeHg. The inter-individual variation in the blood to hair ratio was very large. The variability seemed to decrease with increasing OHg in blood, most probably due to more frequent fish consumption and thereby blood concentrations approaching steady state. THg in urine reflected IHg exposure, also at very low IHg exposure levels.


The use of THg concentration in whole blood as a proxy for MeHg exposure will give rise to an overestimation of the MeHg exposure depending on the degree of IHg exposure, why speciation of mercury forms is needed. THg in RBC and hair are suitable proxies for MeHg exposure. Using THg concentration in plasma as a measure of IHg exposure can lead to significant exposure misclassification. THg in urine is a suitable proxy for IHg exposure.

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