Whitfield, JB, V Dy, R McQuilty, G Zhu, AC Heath, GW Montgomery and NG Martin. Genetic effects on toxic and essential elements in humans: arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium and zinc in erythrocytes. Environmental Health Perspectives http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.090154.
Although the level of exposure to toxic substances certainly matters, a person’s genes and lifestyle can significantly affect how harmful the toxic compounds can become.
Researchers in Australia have found that the extent of harm caused by certain common compounds could be influenced by a person’s genes and lifestyle. Two people exposed to the same amount of a chemical could have different levels in their blood and respond differently.
The study looked at seven elements, which included arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium and zinc. Test subjects included 2,926 adult Australian twins.
Researchers assessed the association between chemical composition and personal and socioeconomic status. They also identified specific genes that correlated with concentrations of the compounds that could possibly cause variation in blood chemical concentrations.
They found that genetic variation could significantly change how much of a chemical was found in the participant’s blood. Sex, age and tobacco or alcohol use also significantly affected the toxicity of the compounds and the effects varied depending on the compound they investigated.
For example, the quantity of alcohol consumed was correlated with increased blood concentrations of arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium.
Many studies, including this one, have found correlations with lifestyle and/or socioeconomic status with the amount of chemical found in a person’s body. This study highlights that genes and individual vulnerability may be a contributing cause, and could help health care professionals better understand the consequences of low dose chemical exposure.
This information could also be used to help protect the people at the highest risk by reducing their workplace or environmental exposure to certain chemicals.