In vivo experiments with the stable lead isotope, 204Pb, have confirmed that inorganic lead compounds can be absorbed through the skin. Three different analytical techniques - thermal ionization mass spectrometry, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and anodic stripping voltammetry - showed that lead, as lead nitrate or lead acetate, was rapidly absorbed through the skin and detectable in sweat, blood and urine within 6 h of skin application. Of the 4.4 mg of lead applied to the skin in one experiment, 1.3 mg was absorbed within 24 h. Initial rapid uptake was probably via sweat glands and hair follicles, followed by slower absorption via the transepidermal route. While increases in 204Pb concentration and abundance were observed, no increase in total lead to in blood or urine was found. It is possible that the physicochemical form of skin-absorbed lead partitions strongly into extracellular fluid, but has a low affinity for erythrocytes. There was no significant difference in uptake of lead into erythrocytes (in vitro) from normal saline, synthetic sweat or sauna sweat. Ultrafiltration of sweat showed that up to 70% of lead in sweat was associated with > 30 000 MW particles. It is possible that percutaneous absorption of lead could contribute significantly to lead body burden, particularly from occupational exposure to lead in dust. Moreover, because lead absorbed through the skin was only just detectable in blood, and blood lead is the main criterion by which industry determines exposure, skin-absorbed lead may remain undetected.
- Skin absorption