Toenail clippings serve as arsenic biomarkers in AZ

Miranda Loh is looking for signs of arsenic poisoning in the victim's toenails. I know this sounds like something out of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, but arsenic really is a problem in parts of Arizona. This is because of naturally occurring contamination of groundwater, explains Loh, who rather than being the latest forensic anthropologist on the Fox Network, is actually an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Toenail clippings are an ideal biomarker for arsenic poisoning because they are easy to collect and they reflect exposure over a number of months. They also do not show evidence of the naturally occurring arsenic in seafood, which is not deemed to be harmful.

The team at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, along with the UA School of Pharmacy, are collecting samples of water and toenail clippings from people in affected areas, and will correlate the levels of arsenic in the water with the levels in the toenails. Long-term exposure to arsenic, through contaminated groundwater (for example as drinking water from a private well, or via locally grown food), can lead to cancer, liver disease, problems with the skin, nerve and digestive systems, even diabetes and deafness. Tracking arsenic levels in the body will help researchers to reduce people's exposure and to aid physicians in diagnosing and treating cases of low-level poisoning, which can mimic other diseases.

"Long-term use of a toenail biomarker to test for arsenic enables people living in high risk areas to determine the extent of their exposure and potential for related health risks. It can be used as a screening tool to reduce exposure, which is associated with several cancers and possibly other diseases," said Mary Kay O'Rourke, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Zuckerman College of Public Health.

The study is partially funded by a one-year, $20,000 seed grant from the Technology Research Initiative Fund (TRIF), administered by the Arizona Board of Regents through the UA Water, Environment, and Energy Solutions (WEES) initiative.

- read the press release