WHO South-East Asia Journal of Public Health
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ORIGINAL RESEARCH
Year : 2015  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 45-53

A cross-sectional study of exposure to mercury in schoolchildren living near the eastern seaboard industrial estate of Thailand


Toxicology Centre, National Institute of Health, Department of Medical Sciences, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand

Date of Web Publication19-May-2017

Correspondence Address:
Sittiporn Parnmen
Toxicology Centre, National Institute of Health, Department of Medical Sciences, Ministry of Public Health, Nonthaburi
Thailand
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DOI: 10.4103/2224-3151.206620

PMID: 28607274

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  Abstract 


Background: Industrial activity in Thailand’s coastal areas has significantly increased mercury concentrations in seawater, causing accumulation through the food chain. Continuous exposure to mercury has been linked to bioaccumulation in living organisms and potential adverse health effects in children.
Methods: Blood samples were collected from 873 schoolchildren aged 6–13 years living in four sites near the eastern seaboard industrial estates of the Gulf of Thailand in 2011. Total mercury level in whole blood (Hg-B) was compared with standard reference values.
Results: Mean (± standard deviation) concentrations of Hg-B from schoolgirls (2.19 ± 0.5 μg/L; n = 405) and schoolboys (2.29 ± 0.3 μg/L; n = 468) did not exceed the regulatory limits of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the German Commission on Human Biological Monitoring (HBM I, II) or Clarke’s analysis of drugs and poisons reference values. Nevertheless, 67 children (34 girls and 33 boys) had individual values that exceeded the lowest of these standards (4 μg/L).
Conclusion: The relatively low concentrations of Hg-B detected in this study suggested a relatively low risk for schoolchildren. However, 67 children had elevated mean total Hg-B concentrations, especially in the two sites located nearest the industrial area. This information may serve as an early warning of the potential for pollution to affect children living around industrial areas. Further regular monitoring, including studies assessing the health impact of mercury pollution in this region of Thailand, is to be encouraged.

Keywords: blood levels, eastern seaboard industrial estate, Environmental Protection Agency, German Commission on Human Biological Monitoring, mercury, schoolchildren, Thailand


How to cite this article:
Teeyapant P, Leudang S, Parnmen S. A cross-sectional study of exposure to mercury in schoolchildren living near the eastern seaboard industrial estate of Thailand. WHO South-East Asia J Public Health 2015;4:45-53

How to cite this URL:
Teeyapant P, Leudang S, Parnmen S. A cross-sectional study of exposure to mercury in schoolchildren living near the eastern seaboard industrial estate of Thailand. WHO South-East Asia J Public Health [serial online] 2015 [cited 2019 Jul 22];4:45-53. Available from: http://www.who-seajph.org/text.asp?2015/4/1/45/206620




  Introduction Top


The eastern seaboard development programme was introduced during Thailand’s fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1981–1984).[1] The programme plays an important role in Thailand’s economy and covers an area of four provinces: Chon Buri, Chachoengsao, Rayong and Samut Prakan. Economic activities in the coastal area of these provinces include agriculture, fisheries and tourism, as well as heavy industry, and the area is also populated with urban communities. Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate (MTPIE) is a large industrial park located in Rayong province, which was established in 1989 by state enterprises, under the management of the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand.[2] It serves as a heavy industrial zone, with a gas separation plant, oil refineries, petrochemical industries and chemical plants.[1],[3] As a result of these industrial activities, increasing mercury levels have been recorded in the coastal areas by the heavy metal monitoring scheme, which was started in 1974.[2] During the period of 1995 to 1998, high mercury levels were detected in MTPIE, especially in the area around the natural gas platform and the inner Gulf zone, owing to the release of mercury from discharged water produced from oil and gas activities.[2],[4] The Pollution Control Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment monitors the environmental quality in MTPIE on a yearly basis. Overall results obtained from the Pollution Control Department indicate that mercury concentrations in seawater, sediment, marine organisms and wastewater are within acceptable standards.[1],[2] However, to the authors’ knowledge, there has been no risk assessment of mercury exposure in children living near the industrial estates area.

Mercury pollution has become an issue of public concern in Thailand. Chronic toxicity from continuous exposure to this element is linked to its bioaccumulation in living bodies and to its biomagnification along the food chain.[5],[6],[7],[8] Mercury exists in different chemical forms, including elemental (metallic), inorganic and organic. Organic mercury, such as methylmercury, which accumulates in the food chain, is the most hazardous form of mercury to human health.[9] A high dose of mercury can cause adverse effects during any period of development, including neurodevelopmental toxicity, nephrotoxicity, teratogenicity, cardiovascular toxicity, carcinogenicity, mutagenesis, reproductive toxicity and immunotoxicity.[9],[10]

The objective of this study was to determine the total mercury levels in blood samples from schoolchildren aged 6 to 13 years living around the industrial zone of MTPIE, and to assess the health risks, by comparing the levels with a range of international standard reference values.


  Methods Top


Subjects

The study was carried out in four senior schools at four sites (S1 to S4) near the MTPIEs in the Rayong province of Thailand. Sites S1 and S2 are located closer to the petrochemical and chemical industrial plants than sites S3 and S4 (see [Figure 1]). The schools were selected because their pupils were in the appropriate age group and because they had large numbers of pupils. Kindergarten and elementary schools in these areas were excluded because of their small populations and more limited age ranges.
Figure 1: Map of the study area of the four sites situated around Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, Thailand Source: Adapted from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Rayong province (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayong_Province, accessed 10 June 2015).

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Consent to participation was sought from the parents/legal guardians of a total of 961 children at the four schools; 88 declined to consent. The study population, therefore, comprised 873 schoolchildren (405 boys and 468 girls) aged 6–13 years (grades 1 to 6). The participants were divided into two different age groups, with 327 children in the younger age group (6–9 years) and 546 children in the older age group (10–13 years). The study was approved by the Ethical Review Committee for Research in Human Subjects of Thammasat University, Thailand (Project No. 031/2010). Written informed consent was obtained from the legal guardians of children and from the children themselves. Additionally, the study was conducted in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki, as amended by the 59th General Assembly of the General Medical Association in Seoul, Republic of Korea, October 2008.

Blood mercury measurements

For each subject, a blood sample of 4 mL was obtained by venepuncture, collected in a Vacuette® silicone tube with an EDTA anticoagulant agent, and mixed thoroughly by inverting the tube several times. Total mercury was measured in whole blood, using flow-injection cold-vapour atomic absorption spectrometry.[11] Blood samples were digested by microwave digester, with a mixture of 2:1 (v/v) nitric acid/hydrogen peroxide, and determined by a PerkinElmer® Model 4100 with flow-injection atomic spectrometry 200 for measurements of total mercury (PerkinElmer Instruments, Shelton, CT, United States of America [USA]). The limit of quantification (LOQ) for blood analysis was 1.5 μg/L (for data-analysis purposes, values below the LOQ were substituted with half this limit, that is, 0.75 μg/L). The recovery of mercury varied from 70% to 135%, obtained by the addition of three concentrations of standard solutions (1.97-17.7 μg/L) to the blood samples of the non-exposure group prior to the digestion. The average coefficient of variation between duplicate assay samples was less than 10%.

Statistical methods

Differences in the amount of mercury between or across groups were assessed by Kruskal–Wallis H test, Student’s t test or analysis of variance (ANOVA), as appropriate. The statistical analyses were done by use of SigmaPlot for Windows (version 11.0, Systat Software, Chicago, IL, USA).

Reference values

Mercury uptake by humans occurs mainly via consumption of fish and shellfish (methylmercury), inhalation of vaporous mercury released from industrial activities, and leakage from dental amalgams.[12],[13] Various reference values for blood mercury exist; this study used reference values published by the German Commission on Human Biological Monitoring (HBM), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and Clarke S analysis of drugs and poisons.[14] HBM recommended two different reference values for mercury in blood for the general population, based on toxicology and epidemiology studies, HBM I and HBM II.[15],[16] Toxin concentrations below the lower HBM I level (5 μg/L; alert level) are not considered to be a risk for the general population, while concentrations above HBM II (15 μg/L; action level) indicate an increased risk of adverse health effects in susceptible individuals of the general population.[16],[17] The US EPA reference dose for total mercury level in whole blood (Hg-B) corresponds to the estimated concentration assumed to be without appreciable harm (below 5.8 μg/L).[18],[19] Clarke’s analysis of drugs and poisons reports a Hg-B reference value of less than 4 μg/L in a non-exposed population.[14]


  Results Top


Blood mercury concentrations (Hg-B) of 873 schoolchildren aged 6–13 years, living around MTPIE are summarized in [Table 1]. Their mean total blood mercury concentrations ranged from 1.5 to 3.0 μg/L; most values were below the LOQ. Comparisons of total Hg-B concentration according to age and sex between different sites were performed (see [Table 2]). There was no statistically significant difference in total Hg-B for all sites combined by sex, when age group was not accounted for, but older children had a higher total Hg-B than younger children when sex was not accounted for (P = 0.001). Statistically significant differences were observed for boys and for girls when comparing the age groups 6–9 years and 10–13 years for all sites combined (boys: P = 0.005; girls: P = 0.001). There was a significant difference between boys and girls in the age group 6–9 years (P = 0.035) but not in the age group 10–13 years (P = 0.203).
Table 2: Whole blood total mercury levels (Hg-B) from schoolchildren according to age and sex between and within sites

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Analysis of total Hg-B according to age and sex within each site were also performed (see [Table 2]). Relating to sex within sites, there were statistically significant differences in mean Hg-B concentration in sites S1 (girls’ levels higher than boys; P = 0.018) and S3 (boys’ levels higher than girls; P = 0.038). Relating to age within sites, older (10–13 years) children had higher mean Hg-B concentrations than younger (6–9 years) children in sites S2 (P = 0.038), S3 (P = 0.001) and S4 (P = 0.001), respectively.

The older age group had significantly higher mean total mercury levels than younger children in boys in all sites and in girls in sites S3 (P = 0.001) and S4 (P = 0.007).

The standard reference Hg-B values of HBM I (5 μg/L), HBM II (15 μg/L), US EPA (5.8 μg/L) and Clarke ‘s analysis of drugs and poisons (4 μg/L)[14] were exceeded by 20 (4.9%), 1 (0.2%), 14 (3.5%) and 33 (8.1%) boys respectively. Similarly for girls, 16 (3.4%), 0 (0%), 7 (1.5%) and 34 (7.3%) girls exceeded standard reference Hg-B values of HBM I, HBM II, US EPA and Clarke’s analysis of drugs and poisons, respectively (see [Table 3]).
Table 3: Guideline values for total mercury in whole blood (Hg-B) and number of children with Hg-B above the given standards

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Sixty-seven children had levels of total Hg-B that exceeded the limit set in Clarke’s analysis of drugs and poisons.[14] Their mean Hg-B ranged from 5.2 to 7.9 μg/L ([Table 4]) and one 13-year-old boy had a total Hg-B of 20.6 μg/L – the maximum value recorded in this study (see [Figure 2]). The higher concentrations were observed in sites S1 and S2, which are located closer to the petrochemical and chemical industrial plants than sites S3 and S4. When comparisons were made by age and sex groups within these 67 schoolchildren, statistically significant differences were found in the higher total Hg-B in older than younger boys (P = 0.001) and higher values in boys than girls aged 10–13 years. (P = 0.005).
Table 4: Details of 67 children with levels of mercury above the recommended standard

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Figure 2: Blood mercury (Hg) levels of 873 schoolchildren residing near Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, Thailand S1 to S4: study sites 1 to 4; a: 6–9-year-old boys; b: 10–13-year-old boys; c: 6–9-year-old girls; d: 10–13-year-old girls.

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  Discussion Top


The rapid expansion of industrialization and urbanization that is taking place around the eastern seaboard industrial estates in Thailand has led to an increase in heavy metal pollution, with potentially serious health consequences. There are numerous industries located along the coastline that release their wastes into the Gulf, thereby continuing to aggravate water pollution. MTPIE is well known for problems linked to heavy metals, such as mercury, zinc and manganese, discharged by industrial communities.[1],[2] As a consequence of environmental concerns of water pollution linked to the petrochemical activities of MTPIE, the Pollution Control Department has extensively monitored the levels of heavy metals, especially total mercury, in seawater and sediments, as well as in marine organisms in the coastal zones.[1],[2],[4] Their analyses have recently shown that mercury contamination did not exceed the normal standards.[1],[2],[4] However, biological monitoring of exposure to mercury of people residing near industrial facilities has yet to be investigated.

The present study evaluated total mercury concentration in whole blood of schoolchildren, as a biomonitoring-based indicator of exposure to mercury. Normally, mercury uptake occurs mainly in two ways in humans, namely by eating fish and shellfish (methylmercury) and by breathing mercury vapour released from industrial activities and dental amalgams.[12],[13] Mercury discharged into the environment by industrial activities may affect human health, and children living near the industrial estates are particularly at risk. The criteria for biological monitoring of population exposure were applied by evaluating the magnitude of exposure in comparison with the reference values, and then comparing the levels of exposure in different countries.[17] The reference values used in the present study were HBM I, HBM II, US EPA and Clarke’s analysis of drugs and poisons.[14]

HBM recommended two different reference values for mercury in blood for the general population, based on toxicology and epidemiology studies, HBM I and HBM II.[15],[16] Toxin concentrations below the lower HBM I level (or alert level) are not considered to be a risk for the general population, while concentrations above HBM II (or action level) indicate an increased risk of adverse health effects in susceptible individuals of the general population.[16],[17] Among the total of 405 boys, 20 (0.05%) and 1 (0.002%) exceeded the HBM I and HBM II guidelines for Hg-B respectively, whereas only 16 girls exceeded HBM I (0.03%) and none exceeded HBM II. One boy from the 13-year-old group from the S2 area had the highest total Hg-B (20.6 μg/L). All the children of the S1, S3 and S4 areas had Hg-B values below the HBM II guideline. The US EPA reference dose for Hg-B corresponds to the estimated concentration assumed to be without appreciable harm (below 5.8 μg/L).[18],[19] A total of 14 boys (0.03%) and seven girls (0.02%) exceeded the US EPA guideline value. Clarke’s analysis of drugs and poisons was used by the authors’ laboratory as a reference value for Hg-B in non-exposed populations.[14] The number of children whose Hg-B was above Clarke’s handbook reference value ranged from 0.02% to 0.1% in the various sites and among the different boys and girls.

Mean total Hg-B in this study was 2.19 ± 0.5 μg/L in girls and 2.29 ± 0.3 μg/L in boys. A study performed in the USA in 1250 children in 1999 to 2000 reported a much lower mean Hg-B value of 0.34 μg/L.[20] Total Hg-B from 162 schoolchildren in the Philippines aged 5–17 years ranged from 0.757 μg/L to 56.88 μg/L.[21] A study performed from 2003 to 2006 in schoolchildren aged 6–14 years in Germany measured a Hg-B of 0.24 μg/L.[22] A recent study from the Republic of Korea revealed that mean Hg-B from 1974 schoolchildren (7–13 years) was 2.42 ± 1.02 μg/L.[10] Therefore, although mean total Hg-B from schoolchildren living near MTPIE did not exceed the reference values, the values were high relative to data obtained from the USA and Germany.[20],[21]


  Conclusion Top


The findings of this study indicate that most of the 873 schoolchildren residing in four different areas around the industrial zone of MTPIE did not exceed the Hg-B recommended reference values of HBM I and II, US EPA and Clarke ‘s analysis ofdrugs andpoisons.[14] However, 67 subjects exceeding the lowest standard were observed in this study. The two sites close to the industrial zone of MTPIE showed highest total Hg-B concentrations in schoolchildren.

Previously there was no information available on mercury exposure in Thai schoolchildren who live near industrial communities. Hence, we suggest that these baseline data could be used as an early warning of the threat of pollution, to protect children, especially in the areas at risk. Moreover, continuous monitoring of children’s levels of mercury in children’s blood should be done to protect against harmful exposure to this heavy metal.


  Acknowledgements Top


The authors wish to sincerely thank Associate Professor Dr Nuntavarn Vichit-Vadakan at the Faculty of Public Health, Thammasat University, Thailand, for her valuable guidance and suggestions.

Source of Support: The Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning, Thailand financially supported this work.

Conflict of Interest: None declared.

Contributorship: PT conceived and designed the experiments, SL performed the experiments, SP analysed the data and wrote the paper.



 
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    Figures

  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]
 
 
    Tables

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4]


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[Pubmed] | [DOI]



 

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