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Environ Sci Technol. 2011 Aug 1;45(15):6575-83. doi: 10.1021/es200633p. Epub 2011 Jul 8.

Age-associated variation in sensory perception of iron in drinking water and the potential for overexposure in the human population.

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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061-0246, United States.


Humans interact with their environment through the five senses, but little is known about population variability in the ability to assess contaminants. Sensory thresholds and biochemical indicators of metallic flavor perception in humans were evaluated for ferrous (Fe(2+)) iron in drinking water; subjects aged 19-84 years participated. Metallic flavor thresholds for individuals and subpopulations based on age were determined. Oral lipid oxidation and oral pH were measured in saliva as potential biochemical indicators. Individual thresholds were 0.007-14.14 mg/L Fe(2+) and the overall population threshold was 0.17 mg/L Fe(2+) in reagent water. Average thresholds for individuals younger and older than 50 years of age (grouped by the daily recommended nutritional guidelines for iron intake) were significantly different (p = 0.013); the population thresholds for each group were 0.045 mg/L Fe(2+) and 0.498 mg/L Fe(2+), respectively. Many subjects >50 and a few subjects <50 years were insensitive to metallic flavor. There was no correlation between age, oral lipid oxidation, and oral pH. Standardized olfactory assessment found poor sensitivity for Fe(2+) corresponded with conditions of mild, moderate, and total anosmia. The findings demonstrate an age-dependent sensitivity to iron indicating as people age they are less sensitive to metallic perception.

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