Heavy metal in pregnancy: Health risks

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  • Published: Aug 15, 2012
  • Author: David Bradley
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Heavy metal in pregnancy

Increased levels of iron in pregnancy seem to show an association with a risk of high blood pressure, hypertension and preeclampsia 

Atomic absorption spectrometry has been used to measure levels of metals in blood plasma from expectant mothers as a proxy for oxidative stress. Increased levels of iron in pregnancy seem to show an association with a risk of high blood pressure, hypertension and preeclampsia; although it is not yet possible to determine whether it is a cause or an effect.

Vanja and colleagues in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, at University Hospital "Merkur", in Zagreb, Croatia, have considered the problem of oxidative stress in pregnancy and its effects on the health of the expectant mother. There is a great increase in metabolic activity during pregnancy, which inevitably raises the number of free radicals and oxidising agents formed naturally in the body. This can also be associated with oxidative stress caused by an imbalance of pro-oxidants and their countering antioxidants.

The researchers hoped to determine serum concentrations of the trace elements iron (Fe), zinc (Zn) and copper (Cu) which they explain are important in growth regulation and pro/anti-oxidant homeostasis. The aim was to see how these concentrations relate to the total serum oxidant capacity (TOC) and the total serum antioxidant capacity (TAC) in pregnant women with pre-eclampsia (30 participants in the study) or with gestational hypertension (a second group of thirty women). They also investigated heavy metals in 37 healthy pregnant women and 30 non-pregnant women as control groups. They anticipated that they would find common differences between all of the pregnant women and the controls and between those women with pre-eclampsia and the other pregnancies. The differences they hypothesised would indicate specific imbalances in oxidative stress and the trace elements analysed.

The researchers used spectrophotometry to determine serum iron. Copper and zinc were measured using atomic absorption spectrometry. They obtained figures for TOC by enzymatic ANTIOX-CAP assay and TAC by peroxide-activity assay, they explain in the August issue of Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics. They found that serum copper and TOC were significantly higher while zinc was lowered in all groups of pregnant regardless of whether or not they had high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia. Conversely, serum iron and TAC concentrations were much higher in pregnant women with pre-eclampsia compared with the women in the pregnant control groups.

The study suggests that an increase in TOC for all pregnant women in the study points to "latent oxidative stress" in pregnancy. They add that iron perhaps has a role in the development of pre-eclampsia, especially given that the increase in TAC early in the emergence of pre-eclampsia could be the expectant mother's stress defence response to the changes occurring in her body. However, what the team cannot yet say is whether or not raised serum levels of iron are a cause or a symptom of pre-eclampsia.

Ironing out health issues

Women worried about taking iron supplements to avoid anaemia prior to and during pregnancy would be advised to speak to their obstetrician or physician for advice. Iron is commonly recommended as a food supplement in pregnancy and previous research has suggested that careful monitoring and caution in using such supplements be taken to help avoid possible ill effects.

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Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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