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Environ Health Perspect. 1997 Feb;105 Suppl 1:37-53.

Environmental chemical exposures and disturbances of heme synthesis.

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Department of Environmental Health, University of Washington, Seattle 98195-7234, USA.


Porphyrias are relatively uncommon inherited or acquired disorders in which clinical manifestations are attributable to a disturbance of heme synthesis (porphyrin metabolism), usually in association with endogenous or exogenous stressors. Porphyrias are characterized by elevations of heme precursors in blood, urine, and/or stool. A number of chemicals, particularly metals and halogenated hydrocarbons, induce disturbances of heme synthesis in experimental animals. Certain chemicals have also been linked to porphyria or porphyrinuria in humans, generally involving chronic industrial exposures or environmental exposures much higher than those usually encountered. A noteworthy example is the Turkish epidemic of porphyria cutanea tarda produced by accidental ingestion of wheat treated with the fungicide hexachlorobenzene. Measurements of excreted heme precursors have the potential to serve as biological markers for harmful but preclinical effects of certain chemical exposures; this potential warrants further research and applied field studies. It has been hypothesized that several otherwise unexplained chemical-associated illnesses, such as multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, may represent mild chronic cases of porphyria or other acquired abnormalities in heme synthesis. This review concludes that, although it is reasonable to consider such hypotheses, there is currently no convincing evidence that these illnesses are mediated by a disturbance of heme synthesis; it is premature or unfounded to base clinical management on such explanations unless laboratory data are diagnostic for porphyria. This review discusses the limitations of laboratory measures of heme synthesis, and diagnostic guidelines are provided to assist in evaluating the symptomatic individual suspected of having a porphyria.

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