Toenail Metal Concentration as a Biomarker of Occupational Welding Fume Exposure
In populations exposed to heavy metals, there are few biomarkers that capture intermediate exposure windows. We sought to determine the correlation between toenail metal concentrations and prior 12-month work activity in welders with variable, metal-rich, welding fume exposures. Forty-eight participants, recruited through a local union, provided 69 sets of toenail clippings. Union-supplied and worker-verified personal work histories were used to quantify hours welded and respirator use. Toenail samples were digested and analyzed for lead (Pb), manganese (Mn), cadmium (Cd), nickel (Ni), and arsenic (As) using ICP-MS. Spearman correlation coefficients were used to examine the correlation between toenail metal concentrations. Using mixed models to account for multiple participation times, we divided hours welded into three-month intervals and examined how weld hours correlated with log-transformed toenail Pb, Mn, Cd, Ni, and As concentrations. Highest concentrations were found for Ni, followed by Mn, Pb and As, and Cd. All the metals were significantly correlated with one another (rho range = 0.28–0.51), with the exception of Ni and As (rho = 0.20, p = 0.17). Using mixed models adjusted for age, respirator use, smoking status, and BMI, we found that Mn was associated with weld hours 7–9 months prior to clipping (p = 0.003), Pb was associated with weld hours 10–12 months prior to clipping (p = 0.03) and over the entire year (p = 0.04). Cd was associated with weld hours 10–12 months prior to clipping (p = 0.05), and also with the previous year's total hours welded (p = 0.02). The association between Ni and weld hours 7–9 months prior to clipping approached significance (p = 0.06). Toenail metal concentrations were not associated with the long-term exposure metric, years as a welder. Results suggest Mn, Pb, and Cd may have particular windows of relevant exposure that reflect work activity. In a population with variable exposure, toenails may serve as useful biomarkers for occupational metal fume exposures to Mn, Pb, and Cd during distinct periods over the year prior to sample collection.