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Analysis of Trace Metals for Occupationally Exposed Workers

As many as 4 million U.S. workers may be exposed to toxic metals and other elements in such occupations as painting, welding, soldering, electroplating, alloying, mining, and electronic-component manufacturing and in facilities that produce brass, bronze, drugs, dyes, textiles, rubber, glass, batteries, and ceramics and enameling. Lung disease and dermatologic problems among these workers have resulted from exposure to metals and their compounds (1). Traditionally, industrial hygiene samples taken to evaluate the exposures of these workers have been analyzed for a limited number of elements; each elemental analysis often required a separate sample-preparation procedure and, consequently, a separate sample. As a result, developing a profile of occupational exposure for a worker or group of workers was expensive and time-consuming. Now, however, a method combining new analytic instrumentation and techniques for sample preparation has been developed and is described below.

This method, called inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-AES), allows simultaneous, multi-element analysis and has been successfully applied to industrial hygiene samples collected from workplace atmospheres (2). The technique has also been adapted and extended for biologic monitoring by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Trace metals are first extracted from urine samples with a polydithiocarbamate resin (3). This resin is well-suited for such extractions because of its unique characteristic of complexing with trace metals while showing little significant affinity for the alkali or alkaline earth elements (e.g., sodium, potassium, and calcium), which occur in large quantities as dissolved salts in urine. After extraction, the resin is digested; the metals are dissolved in a small volume of acid; and ICP-AES analysis is conducted. This procedure allows the simultaneous quantitative measurement from a single sample of 17 elements--aluminum, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, lanthanum, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, platinum, silver, strontium, tin, titanium, and zinc). Reported by Methods Research Br, Div of Physical Sciences and Engineering, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: In addition to the 4 million workers occupationally exposed to elements or their alloys, a significantly larger number is exposed to the salts and aerosols of these metals. This new methodology provides a means for readily establishing baseline data for trace metals in urine samples of both exposed and nonexposed workers. With quantitation of several elements from a single sample, these biologic monitoring data can be collected considerably more efficiently than with traditional analytic methods. In addition to establishing baseline data, the methodology can also be used in screening to determine whether unsafe levels of toxic metals exist. The methodology developed from this work is included in the NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods, Third Edition (4).


  1. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Occupational diseases--a guide to their recognition. Cincinnati, Ohio: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1977; DHEW publication no. (NIOSH)77-181.

  2. Hull RD. Multielement analysis of industrial hygiene samples. Paper No. 68, presented at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference, Portland, Oregon (1981).

  3. Barnes RM, Genna JS. Concentration and spectrochemical determination of trace metals in urine with a polydithiocarbamate resin and inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry. Anal Chem 1979;51:1065.

  4. CDC. Availability of NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods, Third Edition. MMWR 1984;33:467-8.

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