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Efficacy of Hair Total Mercury Content as a Biomarker of Methylmercury Exposure to Communities in the Area of Artisanal and S...

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International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
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Total mercury content (THg) in hair is an accepted biomarker for chronic dietary methylmercury (MeHg) exposure. In artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) communities, the validity of this biomarker is questioned because of the potential for contamination from inorganic mercury. As mining communities may have both inorganic and organic mercury exposures, the efficacy of the hair-THg biomarker needs to be evaluated, particularly as nations begin population exposure assessments under their commitments to the Minamata Convention. We sought to validate the efficacy of hair THg for public health monitoring of MeHg exposures for populations living in ASGM communities. We quantified both THg and MeHg contents in hair from a representative subset of participants (N = 287) in a large, population-level mercury exposure assessment in the ASGM region in Madre de Dios (MDD), Peru. We compared population MeHg-THg correlations and %MeHg values with demographic variables including community location, sex, occupation, and nativity. We observed that hair MeHg-THg correlations were high (r > 0.7) for all communities, regardless of location or nativity. Specifically, for individuals within ASGM communities, 81% (121 of 150 total) had hair THg predominantly in the form of MeHg (i.e., >66% of THg) and reflective of dietary exposure to mercury. Furthermore, for individuals with hair THg exceeding the U.S. EPA threshold (1.0 μg/g), 88 out of 106 (83%) had MeHg as the predominant form. As a result, had urine THg solely been used for mercury exposure monitoring, approximately 59% of the ASGM population would have been misclassified as having low mercury exposure. Our results support the use of hair THg for monitoring of MeHg exposure of populations in ASGM settings where alternative biomarkers of MeHg exposure are not feasible.