Do Post-breast Cancer Diagnosis Toenail Trace Element Concentrations Reflect Prediagnostic Concentrations?

Epidemiology. 2019 Jan;30(1):112-119. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000927.


Background: Exposure to trace elements may affect health, including breast cancer risk. Trace element levels in toenails are potentially useful biomarkers of exposure, but their reliability is not established. We assessed the reproducibility of toenail element concentrations over time and whether concentrations change following a breast cancer diagnosis.

Methods: We assessed trace element levels in toenails collected at two time points from 221 women (111 with and 110 without an intervening breast cancer diagnosis). We measured levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, mercury, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, lead, antimony, selenium, tin, vanadium, and zinc using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry in samples collected at baseline and 4-10 years later. We compared trace element concentrations over time using Spearman's rank correlation coefficient (R). We used linear models to examine the magnitude and direction of changes and the influence of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Results: Overall, we observed positive correlations (R = 0.18-0.71) between paired samples for all trace elements. However, nickel (R = -0.02) and antimony (R = 0.12) were not correlated among cases. We observed decreases in cadmium, chromium, mercury, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and lead between baseline and follow-up, but case status was unrelated to these changes. The declines are consistent with decreases over calendar time rather than age time.

Conclusions: Toenail trace element concentrations were correlated over time, but many elements showed systematic decreases by calendar year. Aside from nickel and antimony, postdiagnostic toenail levels correlated with prediagnostic levels, providing support for using postdiagnostic toenail samples in retrospective studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Metals / analysis*
  • Middle Aged
  • Nails / chemistry*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Siblings
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Trace Elements / analysis*
  • United States


  • Metals
  • Trace Elements