Bone lead as a biological marker in epidemiologic studies of chronic toxicity: conceptual paradigms

Environ Health Perspect. 1998 Jan;106(1):1-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.981061.


The skeleton contains the majority of the body's lead burden in both children and adults. The half-life of lead in bone is in the range of years to decades, depending on bone type, metabolic state, and subject age, among other things. Measurement of skeletal lead has benefited greatly from the recent development of X-ray fluorescence (XRF) instruments that can make rapid, safe, accurate, and relatively precise measurements of lead in bone. Two types of XRF technologies exist, LXRF and KXRF; this paper focuses on KXRF, which has been the most widely validated and used. KXRF is proving to be a powerful analytical methodology for evaluating bone lead levels as a measure of time-integrated (i.e., cumulative) lead dose in epidemiologic studies of the effects of chronic lead exposure. However, insufficient attention has been given to conceptualizing the paradigms by which bone lead levels reflect lead exposure and by which the skeleton serves as an endogenous source of lead. Consideration of these paradigms, which rely on bone lead kinetics, is necessary for the proper development of a priori hypotheses involving bone lead accumulation and release, the selection of bone sites for measurement by KXRF, and the design of epidemiologic studies involving bone lead dynamics. We discuss and present supporting evidence for a conceptual model that distinguishes two major paradigms of skeletal lead, including 1) bone lead as an indicator of cumulative lead exposure (bone lead as repository), and 2) bone lead as a source of body lead burden that is mobilizable into the circulation (bone lead as source). These two roles are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they are components of the processes controlling lead accumulation into and release from bone over time. Developing successful strategies for distinguishing these two processes in epidemiologic studies will require separate measurements of lead in cortical and trabecular bone and additional measurement of specific markers of bone mineral turnover and resorption. It may also involve developing accurate methods for evaluating lead in labile compartments of the circulation, such as plasma, as a potentially useful and responsive measure of bone lead release, of the partitioning of circulatory lead, and of the toxicological significance of lead released from bone to other target organs.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry*
  • Bone and Bones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Lead / analysis*
  • Lead / metabolism*
  • Lead Poisoning / diagnosis
  • Lead Poisoning / epidemiology*
  • Lead Poisoning / metabolism*


  • Biomarkers
  • Lead