Background: Human exposure to chemicals is normally monitored by measurement of environmental pollutants in external media. We investigated whether biomarkers in adolescents can show exposure to, and health effects of, common environmental pollutants.
Methods: We recruited 200 17-year-old adolescents (120 girls) from a rural control area and from two suburbs polluted by a lead smelter and two waste incinerators. We measured biomarkers of exposure and of effect in blood and urine samples, and obtained questionnaire data. School doctors measured testicular volume and staged sexual maturation.
Findings: Internal exposure was mostly within current standards. Concentrations of lead and cadmium in blood, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxin-like compounds in serum samples, and metabolites of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in urine were higher in one or both suburbs than in the control area. Children who lived near the waste incinerators matured sexually at an older age than others, and testicular volume was smaller in boys from the suburbs than in controls. Biomarkers of glomerular or tubular renal dysfunction in individuals were positively correlated with blood lead. Biomarkers of DNA damage were positively correlated with urinary metabolites of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and VOCs. Interpretation Biomarkers can be used to detect environmental exposure to pollutants and measure their biological effects before overt disease develops. Our findings suggest that current environmental standards are insufficient to avoid measurable biological effects.