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Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1997 Aug;26(1 Pt 2):S23-34.

Urinary chromium as a biological marker of environmental exposure: what are the limitations?

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McLaren/Hart Inc.-ChemRisk, 1135 Atlantic Avenue, Alameda, California 94501, USA.


Public concern has mounted recently about environmental exposures to chromium in soil, tap water, and ambient air. In response, agencies charged with protecting public health have attempted to study exposure by monitoring urinary chromium levels among potentially exposed populations. While urinary biomonitoring of occupationally exposed workers has been successfully used to assess high-level inhalation exposures in the workplace, evaluating low-level environmental exposures has been problematic. Due to these problems, before an extensive biological monitoring study is conducted of those exposed to low levels of environmental chromium, several issues must be resolved. First, exposures to chromium must occur at the same time as sampling, because the biological half-life of chromium in urine is very short (less than 2 days). Second, reduced bioavailability and bioaccessibility via the oral and dermal routes of exposure limit the capacity of urinary monitoring to measure environmental exposures (e.g., systemic dose is too small to be measured). Third, the dose of chromium must be sufficient such that it may be reliably measured above background levels in urine (range of 0.2 to 2 microg/liter) and above the analytical limit of detection (0.2 microg/liter). Fourth, the inter- and intrapersonal variability in background levels of urinary chromium is known to be significant and influenced by food and beverage intake, smoking, and exercise. Thus, the role of each factor must be carefully understood. Finally, it is imperative to have developed a complete understanding of the clinical significance of elevated urinary chromium levels before a study is performed, because higher than background levels, in and of themselves, are not indicative of a significant health concern. The route of exposure, valence of chromium to which people were exposed, exposure time, and duration must all be understood before the biological data can be implemented. We have conducted a total of nine human exposure studies over the past 3 years in an attempt to understand the kinetics of chromium and the impact on urinary, red blood cell (RBC), and plasma biomonitoring programs. The results of these studies are described here and our recommendations are offered for how to design and implement a urinary chromium biomonitoring study. In our view, given some evidence that the dose of hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)] is sufficient to be measurable above background concentrations of total chromium [Cr(III) and Cr(VI)], duplicated measurements of chromium in plasma and RBCs are, in most cases, a more definitive gauge of environmental exposure than urinary biomonitoring.

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