Mobilization of lead from human bone tissue during pregnancy and lactation - A summary of long-term research

Brian L. Gulson*, Karen J. Mizon, Michael J. Korsch, Jacqueline M. Palmer, John B. Donnelly

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    217 Citations (Scopus)


    The skeleton is potential endogenous source of lead during pregnancy and lactation. We have undertaken a longitudinal investigation into the mobilization of lead from the human maternal skeleton to determine whether lead is mobilized from the maternal skeleton during pregnancy and lactation, and if so, when and how much is released. Subjects in the study were migrants to Australia (n=15) whose skeletal lead isotopic composition (endogenous lead) was different to that prevailing in the Australian environment (exogenous lead). This migrant cohort was compared with 6 multi-generational Australian controls. Biological and environmental samples were taken pre-pregnancy where possible, throughout pregnancy and postpartum for at least 6 months. Newly-born infants of the migrant and Australian mothers were monitored for 6 months. Blood lead concentrations for the migrant mothers ranged from 1.5 to 20 μg/dl (geometric mean 2.8) and for Australian mothers ranged from 1.9 to 4.3 μg/dl (geometric mean 2.9). There was minimal change in lead isotopic composition of the Australian pregnant controls although there were increases of approximately 40% in blood lead concentration in 3 of 6 cases during the postpartum period and from 0 to 12% in the other 3. In the migrant pregnant subjects, the geometric mean skeletal lead contribution to blood lead using the isotopic composition was approximately 33% (range 10-88%) for 14 subjects using a revised estimate for exogenous lead. Skeletal contribution to blood lead during the postpartum period was significantly greater than during pregnancy (P<0.001). The skeletal contributions to blood lead are higher and the changes are more consistent in those subjects who conceived within 100 days of arrival in Australia compared with those who conceived longer than 100 days. In the migrant subjects, changes in blood lead concentration during pregnancy and postpartum varied from subject to subject with an overall 20% increase; the increases during the postpartum period were greater than during pregnancy (P<0.001). It was estimated that the amount of maternal skeletal lead mobilized during pregnancy and transferred to the infant via cord blood averaged approximately 79%. The increased skeletal contribution to blood lead is attributed to a low daily calcium intake of approximately 500 mgCa/day, a condition which was present in both migrant and Australian subjects. An ongoing clinical trial is providing a new cohort with calcium supplements. A summary of other aspects of the study is included and covers: additional flux released from the skeleton during pregnancy and postpartum; XRF bone lead results; urinary excretion of lead during pregnancy and postpartum; dietary contribution to blood lead in female adults and children; comparison of rates of exchange of lead in blood of newly-born infants and mothers; relationships of lead in breast milk to lead in blood, urine and diet of the infant and mother; changes in blood lead after cessation of breastfeeding; urinary lead isotopes during pregnancy and postpartum indicate no preferential partitioning of endogenous lead into plasma; a comparison of some aspects of the nonhuman primate and human pregnancy studies.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)79-104
    Number of pages26
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Issue number1-2
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2003


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