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Toenail clippings reveal arsenic exposure


Arsenic occurs in the environment both because of natural and anthropogenic sources and people can be exposed to it in several ways, for example through contaminated drinking water, food, dust or soil. The risk of exposure is greater in certain areas of the UK where the natural geology and historic mining activities have led to widespread contamination of the environment with arsenic. Especially inorganic arsenic is classified to be cancerogen and long term exposure to arsenic is associated with increases in lung, liver, bladder and kidney cancers and skin growths.

The new study:
Previous studies using human hair have suggested high levels of arsenic in the bodies of King George III and Napoleon Bonaparte. Now doctoral research at the British Geological Survey by Mark Button of the University of Leicester has used toenail clippings to find fresh evidence of exposure to environmental arsenic within a UK population living close to a former arsenic mine. The research, published online ahead of print in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring, was carried out with Dr Gawen Jenkin, Department of Geology, University of Leicester; Dr Chris Harrington, School of Science and Technology at Nottingham Trent University and Dr Michael Watts of the British Geological Survey. The research was funded by the British Geological Survey.

Mark Button said "We initially identified high levels of arsenic in earthworms living in contaminated soils surrounding the former mine. That got us thinking about potential exposure in people living close to the site."

The researchers collected toenails and washed and acid digested the samples under microwave irradiation. They then analysed the samples using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry for total arsenic and HPLC-ICP-MS for arsenic speciation.

Mark Button added: "This preliminary research indicates that people living close to a former arsenic mine have elevated levels of arsenic in their toenails. However, the potential health risks in this case, if any, are not yet clear and no arsenic related health issues have been reported. A large-scale and more detailed biomonitoring study is required to confirm these initial results."

Dr Jenkin, lecturer in Applied Geology at the University of Leicester said: "There is definitely more research needed to look at - amongst other things - a larger sample of volunteers, to see if the values change with time (it is quite possible the high values recorded are a one-off for that person, or due to slow toenail growth concentrating harmless quantities of arsenic), and to look at the possible pathways by which the arsenic is ingested. Coupling our analyses with regular blood measurements would be very revealing."

However the researchers are definitely NOT requiring people to send in their toenail clippings. Neither can you assess arsenic contamination simply by looking at your toenails.

Dr Jenkin said: "Even in those people with elevated amounts it is present in tiny quantities – less than 0.003% in the toenail. In people who have not been exposed at all it is less than 0.00003%. If a nail looks different from normal that is usually due to physical damage (you stubbed your toe or dropped something on it) or a minor fungal infection that can be easily cleared up by a visit to the doctor."

Source: Adapted from the News section of University of Leicester

The original study:

Mark Button, Gawen R. T. Jenkin, Chris F. Harrington, Michael J. Watts, Human toenails as a biomarker of exposure to elevated environmental arsenic, J. Environ. Monit. , 11/3 (2009) 610-617. DOI: 10.1039/b817097e

Related studies:

M. Garland, J.S. Morris, B.A. Rosner, M.J. Stampfer, V.L. Spate, C.J. Baskett, Toenail trace element levels as biomarkers: Reproducibility over a 6-year period, Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev., 2/5 (1993) 493-497.

M.R. Karagas, J.S. Morris, J.E. Weiss, V. Spate, C. Baskett, E.R. Greenberg, Toenail Samples as an Indicator of Drinking Water Arsenic Exposure, Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev., 5/10 (1996) 849-852.

T.A. Nichols, J.S. Morris, M.M. Mason, V.L. Spate, C.K. Baskett, T.P. Cheng, C.J. Tharp, J.A. Scott, T.L. Horsmann, J.W. Colbert, A.E. Rawson, M. R. Karagas, V. Stannard, The study of human nails as an intake monitor for arsenic using neutron-activation analysis, J. Radioanal. Nucl. Chem., 236/1-2 (1998) 51-56. doi: 10.1007/BF02386317

K.L.B. Chen, C.J. Amarasiriwardena, D.C. Christiani, Determination of total arsenic concentrations in nails by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, Biol. Trace Elem. Res., 67/2 (1999) 109-125. doi: 10.1007/BF02784067

M.R. Karagas, T.D. Tosteson, J. Blum, Measurement of low levels of arsenic exposure: A comparison of water and toenail concentrations, Am. J. Epidemiol., 152/1 (2000) 84-90.

M.R. Karagas, T.A. Stukel, J.S. Morris, T.D. Tosteson, J.E. Weis, S.K. Spencer, Skin cancer risk in relation to toenail arsenic concentrations in a US population-based case-control study, Am. J. Epidemiol. , 153/6 (2001)  559-565.

B.K. Mandal, Y. Ogra, K.T. Suzuki, Speciation of arsenic in human nail and hair from arsenic-affected area by HPLC-inductively coupled argon plasma mass spectrometry, Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol., 189/2 (2003) 73-83. doi:10.1016/S0041-008X(03)00088-7

Andrea L. Hinwood, Malcolm R. Sim, Damien Jolley, Nick de Klerk, Elisa B. Bastone, Jim Gerostamoulos, Olaf H. Drummer, Hair and Toenail Arsenic Concentrations of Residents Living in Areas with High Environmental Arsenic Concentrations, Environ. Health Perspect., 111/2 (2003) 187-193. doi: 10.1289/ehp.5455

D.S. Michaud, M.E. Wright, K.P. Cantor, P.R. Taylor, J. Virtamo, D. Albanes, Arsenic concentrations in prediagnostic toenails and the risk of bladder cancer in a cohort study of male smokers, Am. J. Epidemiol., 160/9 (2004) 853-859. doi:10.1093/aje/kwh295

J.B. Wickre, C.L. Folt, S. Stürup, M.R. Karagas, Environmental exposure and fingernail analysis of arsenic and mercury in children and adults in a Nicaraguan gold mining community, Arch. Environ. Health, 59/8 (2004) 400-409. DOI:    10.3200/AEOH.59.8.400-409

Laura E. Beane Freeman, Leslie K. Dennis, Charles F. Lynch, Peter S. Thorne, Craig L. Just, Toenail Arsenic Content and Cutaneous Melanoma in Iowa, Am. J. Epidemiol., 160/7 (2004) 679-687. doi:10.1093/aje/kwh267

M.A.B.C. Menezes, E.C.P. Maia, C.C.B. Albinati, C..S. Sabino, J.R. Batista, How suitable are scalp hair and toenail as biomonitors?, J. Radioanal. Nucl. Chem., 259/1 (2004) 81-86. doi: 10.1023/B:JRNC.0000015810.22775.72

Michael Wilhelm, Beate Pesch, Jürgen Wittsiepe, Pavel Jakubis, Peter Miskovic, Tom Keegan, Mark J Nieuwenhuijsen, Ulrich Ranft, Comparison of arsenic levels in fingernails with urinary As species as biomarkers of arsenic exposure in residents living close to a coal-burning power plant in Prievidza District, Slovakia, J. Expo. Anal. Environ. Epidemiol., 15/1 (2005) 89-98. DOI: 10.1038/sj.jea.7500350

M.T. Schmitt, D. Schreinemachers, K. Wu, Z. Ning, B. Zhao, X.C. Le, J. L. Mumford, Human nails as a biomarker of arsenic exposure from well water in Inner Mongolia: comparing atomic fluorescence spectrometry and neutron activation analysis, Biomarkers, 10/2-3 (2005) 95-104. DOI: 10.1080/13547500500087913

Melissa J. Slotnick, Jerome O. Nriagu, Validity of human nails as a biomarker of arsenic and selenium exposure: A Review, Environ. Res. (U.S.A), 102/1 (2006) 125-139. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2005.12.001

E.I. Brima, P.I. Haris, R.O. Jenkins, D.A. Polya, A.G. Gault, C.F. Harrington, Understanding arsenic metabolism through a comparative study of arsenic levels in the urine, hair and fingernails of healthy volunteers from three unexposed ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol., 216/1 (2006) 122-130. doi:10.1016/j.taap.2006.04.004

Blakely M. Adair, Edward E. Hudgens, Michael T. Schmitt, Rebecca L. Calderon, David J. Thomas, Total arsenic concentrations in toenails quantified by two techniques provide a useful biomarker of chronic arsenic exposure in drinking water, Environ. Res. (U.S.A), 101/2 (2006) 213-220. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2005.08.004

M. J. Slotnick, J. R. Meliker, G. A. Avruskin, D. Ghosh, J. O. Nriagu, Toenails as a Biomass of Inorganic Arsenic Intake From Drinking Water and Foods, J. Toxicol. Environ. Health Part A, 70/2 (2007) 148-158. DOI: 10.1080/15287390600755232

M.L. Kile, E.A. Houseman, C.V. Breton, Association between total ingested arsenic and toenail arsenic concentrations, J. Environ. Sci. Health, Part A, 42/12 (2007) 1827-1834. DOI: 10.1080/10934520701566819

Related EVISA Resources

EVISA brief summary: ICP-MS: A versatile detection system for speciation analysis
EVISA brief summary: LC-ICP-MS: The most often used hyphenated system for speciation analysis
EVISA Link Database: Toxicity of arsenic species
EVISA Link Database: Analytical methods for the determination and speciatio0n of arsenic

Related News

EVISA News, September 5, 2008: Exposure to inorganic arsenic may increase diabetes risk
EVISA News, July 29, 2007: Speciation analysis in forensic science: Arsenic speciation is supporting the hypothesis that Napoleon was poisoned with inorganic arsenic
EVISA News, January 18, 2006: Hungarians exposed to high arsenic levels in drinking water

last time modified: November 3, 2009


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