Action News Vol 3 no 3 Winter 1995
Lead in Hair - Concern Over its Use as an Indicator of Non-Occupational Exposure
By Prof Brian Gulson
With increasing public awareness of lead as a health issue, The LEAD group has received numerous calls regarding the availability and significance of lead measurements in hair and nails, but especially hair. Concern over the toxic effects of environmental factors such as heavy metals has also spawned an "Industry", promoting the use of trace metals in hair.
I was recently approached by a subject who had his hair analysed, informed that the lead was elevated and that he should undergo chelation therapy with EDTA. Brief details of this case are as follows.
Subject A is a 27 year old student who had experienced for at least the past three years symptoms which could be attributable to lead poisoning such as tiredness, sleep disruptions, disinterest in studies, indigestion and facial flushing. Discussions with the subject elicited no source 'of lead apart from the possibility of childhood exposure in Germany from petrol, because of the proximity of his residence to a busy thoroughfare.
A naturopath had suggested hair analysis, the results of which were 6.1 ppm Pb and 86 ppm Cu. The interpretation of the results was that both metal concentrations were high and it was recommended by a medical practitioner that the subject undergo chelation therapy with EDTA, with no follow-up or even a blood lead analysis! Hair analyses are not considered reliable indicators of lead exposure, as discussed below.
He agreed to a blood lead analysis prior to chelation. Blood lead analyses - despite the drawbacks associated with a single analysis - are accepted internationally as the main indicator of lead exposure. Duplicate analyses of a blood sample using the stringent CSIRO protocol, showed it to contain 5.6 µg/dL, half the June 1993 NHMRC recommended goal for all Australians. Furthermore, the lead isotopic fingerprint indicated a source of Australian lead, not from Germany, although given that the subject has spent the past 22 years in Australia, it was highly unlikely that German lead would be detectable.
It is medically irresponsible for this subject to undergo chelation therapy with EDTA
Status of Hair Analysis
Lead measurements in hair are not considered reliable indicators for exposure because
of the difficulty to distinguish what is in the hair from what is on it. These problems
The CDC document (1991 page 55) states: "The following tests are NOT indicated for the diagnosis or clinical management of lead poisoning:
Tests of Hair and Fingernails for Lead Levels."
After a thorough study of the literature, Taylor (1986) came to the following conclusions, summarised by internationally regarded experts, Ewers and Brockhaus (1991):
The concerns expressed above for many trace elements is exacerbated in the case of lead because of its ubiquity.
A table of hair lead analyses from Fergusson (1990; Table 13.4, page 478; references included) also illustrates the variability in lead concentrations (in parts per million; ppm) and futility in the interpretation of data at low concentrations.
If the community wishes to avail itself of the "metals in hair" services, that is their prerogative. However, if as an outcome of these services, recommendations are proposed which could potentially impact negatively on a person's health with no amelioration of their problems, it is irresponsible for the service providers to make these recommendations.
CDC (1991). Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia.
Ewers U. and Brockhaus A. (1991). Metal concentrations in human body fluids and tissues. In: Metals and their compounds in the environment. Occurrence, analysis and biological relevance. Edited by E Merian. VCH Publishers Weinheim, Germany, 1991, pages 207 - 220.
Fergusson JE (1990). The heavy elects: chemistry, environmental impact and health effects. Pergamon Press, Oxford.
Mann K.V. and Travers J.D. (1991). Succimer, and oral lead chelator. Clinical Pharmacy,
10, 914 -922.
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Updated 17 November 2012