Heavy metals (lead, cadmium and mercury) in maternal, cord blood and placenta of healthy women

Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2011 Mar;214(2):79-101. doi: 10.1016/j.ijheh.2010.10.001. Epub 2010 Nov 18.


Lead, cadmium and mercury were measured in placental tissue, umbilical cord and maternal blood samples of 1578 women who delivered at the Al-Kharj King Khalid Hospital between 2005 and 2006. The aim of this study was to evaluate the status of heavy metal exposure in mothers and their newborns and to identify predictors of maternal exposure. Lead was detected in all cord and maternal blood and in 96% of placental tissues. Only in 0.89% and 0.83% of cord and maternal blood samples were the levels of lead above the CDC threshold limit of 10 μg/dl. Maternal blood lead was also higher (2.3%) than the German Reference value in women of 7 μg/dl. Approximately 9.3% of women had a placental lead above the 95th percentile in the range of 0.83-78 μg/g dry wt., a level of possible developmental toxicity. Cadmium was detected in 94.8% and 97.9% of cord and maternal blood samples respectively, though only five newborns had a cadmium level above the OSHA threshold limit of 5 μg/l. Comparing our results to the newly revised German Reference value for nonsmokers, 48.6% of mothers had blood cadmium levels >1.0 μg/l. We found as well that 25% of women had placental cadmium in the >75th percentile, in the range of 0.048-4.36 μg/g dry wt., which is likely to affect fetal growth and development. Of the maternal and cord blood samples, 11.2% and 13%, respectively, had mercury levels >5.8 μg/l, which is the EPA reference dose. Nearly 49% of women had mercury levels >2.0 μg/l, the German Reference value for those who consume fish ≤3 times a month. Around 50% of the mothers had placental mercury in the range of 0.031-13.0 μg/g dry wt. Regression analyses indicated that the levels of metals in the blood and placenta were influenced by several factors. This study provides informative baseline biomonitoring data and reveals a substantial exposure to heavy metals in non-occupationally exposed Saudi mothers and their newborns that might jeopardize the health of both. Additional research is also urgently needed to explore factors such as environment, diet, lifestyle and/or cultural habits contributing to maternal and fetal exposures. Preventive measures to eliminate or minimize the unnecessary risk of fetus exposure to heavy metals or other pollutants during pregnancy should be initiated once these factors are identified.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cadmium / blood
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood*
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / chemistry*
  • Fetal Development
  • Humans
  • Lead / blood
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Mercury / blood
  • Metals, Heavy / blood*
  • Middle Aged
  • Placenta / blood supply
  • Placenta / chemistry*
  • Pregnancy
  • Reference Values
  • Regression Analysis
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Young Adult


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Cadmium
  • Lead
  • Mercury