The impact of chronic co-exposure to different heavy metals on small fibers of peripheral nerves. A study of metal industry workers


Background: Chronic exposure to heavy metals affects various organs, among them the brain and peripheral nerves. Polyneuropathy is mainly length-dependent with predominantly sensory symptoms. There have been few studies on small fiber neuropathy due to heavy metal intoxication. Methods: We investigated 41 metal industry workers, mean age 51.3 ± 10.5 years, with at least 5 years’ professional exposure to heavy metals, and 36 age- and sex-matched healthy controls. We performed neurological examinations, and assessed blood levels of cadmium, lead, and zinc protoporphyrin, urine levels of arsenic, standard, sensory and motor electrophysiological tests in the ulnar and peroneal nerves, sympathetic skin responses from the palm and foot, and quantitative sensation testing from dermatomes C8 and S1.

Discussion: The results of standard conduction tests of all nerves significantly differed between groups. The latency of sympathetic skin responses achieved from the foot was also statistically significantly prolonged in the study group. Significant differences were seen in both C8 and S1 regions for temperature and pain thresholds, and for vibratory threshold only in the S1 region, while the dispersions of low and high temperatures were important exclusively in the C8 region.

Conclusions: We can conclude that co-exposure to many heavy metals results in explicit impairment of peripheral nerves. The lesion is more pronounced within small fibers and is predominantly connected with greater impairment of temperature-dependent pain thresholds. The evaluation of small fiber function should be considered in the early diagnosis of toxic polyneuropathy or in low-dose exposure to heavy metals.

Authors: Magdalena Koszewicz, Katarzyna Markowska, Marta Waliszewska-Prosol, Rafał Poreba, Paweł Gac, Anna Szymanska-Chabowska, Grzegorz Mazur, Malgorzata Wieczorek, Maria Ejma, Krzysztof Slotwinski, Slawomir Budrewicz
; Full Source: Journal of occupational medicine and toxicology (London, England) 2021 Apr 15;16(1):12. doi: 10.1186/s12995-021-00302-6.