Lead in finger bone, whole blood, plasma and urine in lead-smelter workers: extended exposure range

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Objectives: To assess the historical exposure and to study the relationships between lead concentrations in whole blood (B-Pb), plasma (P-Pb), urine (U-Pb), finger bone (Bone-Pb) and duration of employment in workers at a secondary lead smelter and to compare the relationships between B-Pb and P-Pb with results from previous studies of populations with a wide range of lead exposure. Methods: In 39 lead workers (29 active, ten retired), recruited from those with the highest exposure at a German secondary lead smelter, levels of B-Pb, P-Pb and U-Pb were determined by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Bone-Pb was determined by in vivo X-ray fluorescence (XRF). Results were compared with data from a previous study on 90 workers (71 active, 19 retired) with lower exposure, from a Swedish secondary lead smelter, as well as with previously collected data from 42 active Russian lead workers and 34 Ecuadorian lead-exposed subjects. Results: The median values in the active/retired German lead workers were: age 44/59 years, duration of employment 20/38 years, Bone-Pb 71/150 g/g, B-Pb 500/330 g/l, P-Pb 2.7/1.1 g/l, and U-Pb 25/13 mol/mol creatinine. Bone-Pb increased with duration of employment by 4.2 g/g per year and 1.6 g/g per year in German and Swedish workers, respectively. The median Bone-Pb was three times higher in both active and retired German workers than in Swedish smelter workers with essentially the same age distribution and duration of employment. The linear regression equation between B-Pb and log P-Pb in the combined group of Ecuadorian, German, Russian and Swedish lead-exposed subjects (n=176) was B-Pb=545×log[P-Pb] + 258 (rs=0.94, P<0.001). Conclusions: The high Bone-Pb values recorded for the German smelters implied a historical lead exposure of considerable magnitude. The long-term high lead exposure also showed up in the B-Pb levels for both active and retired workers, leading to the implementation of necessary industrial safety measures in order to respond to biological threshold limits. The suggested equation describing the relationship between B-Pb and P-Pb in the combined group of subjects with a wide range of lead exposure can be useful in future cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of lead-exposed populations, relating, e.g., lead exposure to adverse health outcomes.

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