Variability in airborne and biological measures of exposure to mercury in the chloralkali industry: implications for epidemiologic studies

Environ Health Perspect. 2000 Jun;108(6):569-73. doi: 10.1289/ehp.00108569.


Exposure assessment is a critical component of epidemiologic studies, and more sophisticated approaches require that variation in exposure be considered. We examined the intra- and interindividual sources of variation in exposure to mercury vapor as measured in air, blood, and urine among four groups of workers during 1990-1997 at a Swedish chloralkali plant. Consistent with the underlying kinetics of mercury in the body, the variability of biological measures was dampened considerably relative to the variation in airborne levels. Owing to the effects of intraindividual variation, estimating workers' exposures from a few measurements can attenuate measures of effect. To examine such effects on studies relating long-term exposure to a continuous health outcome, we evaluated the utility of each exposure measure by comparing the necessary sample sizes required for accurate estimation of a slope coefficient obtained from a regression analysis. No single measure outperformed the others for all groups of workers. However, when workers were evaluated together, creatinine-corrected urinary mercury better discriminated workers' exposures than airborne or blood mercury levels. Thus, pilot studies should be conducted to examine variability in both air and biomonitoring data because quantitative information about the relative magnitude of the intra- and interindividual sources of variation feeds directly into our efforts to design an optimal sampling strategy when evaluating health risks associated with occupational or environmental contaminants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Chemical Industry
  • Creatinine / analysis
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure
  • Male
  • Mercury / analysis*
  • Mercury / blood
  • Mercury / urine
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Risk Assessment


  • Biomarkers
  • Creatinine
  • Mercury