In order to assess the mercury exposure of pregnant and lactating women in Slovenia, levels of total mercury (THg) and methylmercury (MeHg) were determined in hair, cord blood and breast milk. In addition, the frequency of fish consumption was estimated, because fish is generally the main pathway for human exposure to MeHg. Hair samples were collected from 574 women participating in this study, while cord blood and breast milk samples were collected from 446 and 284 women, respectively. As expected, the levels of THg in hair (median (Med)=297 ng/g, 10th percentile (P10)=73 ng/g, 90th percentile (P90)=781 ng/g), cord blood (Med=1.5 ng/g, P10=0.5 ng/g, P90=4.2 ng/g) and breast milk (Med=0.2 ng/g, P10=0.06 ng/g, P90=0.6 ng/g) were low, due to low consumption of fish (X=25 g/day). A significant linear correlation was found between levels of lnTHg in hair and lnTHg in cord blood (r=0.87, 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.84-0.89), between levels of lnTHg in hair and lnMeHg in cord blood (r=0.94, 95% CI: 0.90-0.96) and between lnTHg levels in cord blood and lnTHg levels in breast milk (r=0.36, 95% CI: 0.25-0.47). Spearman's rank correlations between the frequency of fish consumption and THg in hair (rs=0.35, 95% CI: 0.28-0.42), and between the frequency of fish consumption and THg in cord blood (rs=0.43, 95% CI: 0.36-0.51) or MeHg in cord blood (rs=0.31, 95% CI: 0.06-0.52) were weak. This could be due to the approximate information on fish consumption obtained from the questionnaires, the high variability of MeHg concentrations in fish and a relatively high proportion of inorganic mercury in the biomarkers which originates from sources other than fish. In conclusion, THg levels in cord blood, THg levels in hair and MeHg levels in cord blood are suitable biomarkers of low-level Hg exposure through fish consumption. Compared to cord blood, hair samples are easy to collect, store and analyse.
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