Arsenic and selenium in human hair: a comparison of five countries with and without arsenicosis

Biol Trace Elem Res. 2005 Aug;106(2):133-44. doi: 10.1385/BTER:106:2:133.


The selenium (Se) content of the diet and/or selenium supplements might have an ameliorating effect on arsenic (As) toxicity as recently shown by Wang et al., Yang et al., and as reviewed by Spallholz et al.. The underlying principles of the ameliorating effect is the complexation of Se with As forming the seleno-bis (S-glutathionyl) arsinium ion excreted in bile and the complexation of Se with As in tissues forming nontoxic insoluble selenides. Additional protection afforded by Se supplementation from arsenicosis could be the elevation of glutathione peroxidase activity reducing the oxidative stress induced by As. The present study assessed the status of Se and As in hair by neutron activation analysis (NAA). Human hair samples were collected from the United States, Canada, The People's Republic of China (PRC), Bangladesh, and Nepal, the latter two countries now engaged in a struggle to find relief from human arsenicosis resulting from extensive domestic groundwater contamination by As. No statistically significant differences were observed in the samples between the Se and As content of hair from, Lubbock, Texas (USA) or Winnipeg, Canada. The concentration of As in all hair samples analyzed correlated (r = 0.960, p < 0.001) with the amount of As in the drinking water. Selenium levels in hair were highest from Nepal. The results demonstrate the viability of hair as a noninvasive biomonitor in assessing aspects of dietary Se and environmental As exposure. The hair data confirmed the known low intake of Se in the Keshan disease area of the PRC, the very high accumulation in hair of As from subjects consuming contaminated groundwaters, and an adequate Se status in subjects from North America consuming municipal water of low As content. The high As content of hair from people in Bangladesh is the result of a high As consumption from contaminated water compounded by a less than desirable intake of Se. From Nepal, the As content of hair corresponded to the known low and high intake of As from contaminated groundwater. The very high Se content found in all hair samples from Nepal might be the result of the use of henna.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Arsenic / analysis*
  • Arsenic Poisoning*
  • Bangladesh
  • Canada
  • Child
  • China
  • Diet
  • Female
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nepal
  • Selenium / analysis*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • United States
  • Water / chemistry


  • Water
  • Selenium
  • Arsenic