Elemental analysis: Hair by AAS

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  • Published: Apr 2, 2017
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Hair today

Atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS) has been used to analyse hair samples from Polish children and adolescents revealing significant differences between metallic elements present in different age groups and between boys and girls.

Atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS) has been used to analyse hair samples from Polish children and adolescents revealing significant differences between metallic elements present in different age groups and between boys and girls.

Recently the analysis of hair has come to the fore in medical diagnostics, biomedical research and in scientific analyses used in crime scene investigation. There are also concerns of toxicity and deficiency of particular metals that might be understood better in terms of different demographics, regions of the world, particular diets and particular living conditions.

Understanding the elemental profile of hair in terms of the presence of heavy metals is therefore useful in finding baselines for particular elements and how they might vary with age and gender. Maria Długaszek and Wojciech Skrzeczanowski of the Institute of Optoelectronics at the Military University of Technology in Warsaw, Poland, have used AAS and classic and principal component (PCA) statistical analyses to look at variations in heavy metal content in boys and girls aged from 1 year to 19 years old. Specifically, the team determined calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), lead (Pb), and cadmium (Cd).

Metallic correlations

The researchers explain in the journal Biological Trace Element Research that, "Many factors determine element content in hair, for instance individual characteristics such as sex, age, functioning of endocrine glands, health condition, effectiveness of absorption and excretion processes, diet, and also natural and occupational environment." With that said, however, they point out how concentrations of different elements in samples of hair is a much more stable reflection of element levels than urine or blood samples. The tips of growing hair will embed an elemental profile as it emerges from the follicle, whereas concentrations in blood and urine and other "living" samples can change on a daily basis, if not by the hour.

The team sampled hair from girls and boys across five age groups corresponding to successive developmental phases (toddlerdom, play age, middle childhood, and adolescence) and also evaluated the relationships between the elements profiled. The results showed differences between concentrations of Ca, Mg, and Zn in girls' and boys' hair and substantial differences between age groups. "In general, larger amounts of Ca, Mg, and Zn as compared to boys' hair have been observed for girls' hair and higher toxic element (Pb, Cd) content for boys were measured in some age groups," the team reports." They suggest that there is an increasing trend for the so-called bioelements (Ca, Mg, Zn) both for girls and boys in all age groups, while for Cu and Fe content, changes are insignificant and even decreased somewhat in adolescence, or more specifically teenage years. The researchers found several elements that correlated with one another, Ca and Mg, Ca and Zn, Mg and Zn, and Pb and Cd. This is perhaps not surprising given that these elemental pairs exist in food and the environment.

Nutritional and environmental concerns

"Children and young people are particularly susceptible to adverse environmental conditions and poor nutrition," the team explains. "Therefore, we should pay special attention to fast, safe, and relevant methods of assessing their health." Their approach to elemental analysis of hair could be used in epidemiological studies or more locally in the monitoring of environmental exposure and assessment of nutritional status in individuals or particular at-risk populations.

With this data in hand, the team suggests that further work is now needed to examine hair samples from larger population of young people in various environments. "This should be useful in attempts to create suitable global database for the content of elements in the hair and to evaluate reference values and proper quantitative ratios of essential and toxic elements," they conclude.

We are considering the extension of our research to a group of people over 60 years, since these are people for whom physiological changes related to ageing have an influence on elemental balance, Długaszek told SpectroscopyNOW. Currently, she is working on a large review paper on correlations of elements in various human and animal tissues, bodily fluids and cells based on the team's experimental results obtained using AAS.

Related Links

Biol Trace Elem Res 2017, online: "Relationships Between Element Contents in Polish Children’s and Adolescents’ Hair"

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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