Lead is a nonessential metal and may be a coexposure in welding fumes. Preclinical data indicate lead may affect iron regulation. The current study investigated blood lead concentrations and their association with brain iron accumulation in workers with chronic welding fume exposure, with a focus on iron-rich subcortical regions of the cerebellum and basal ganglia. Occupational exposure, whole blood metal, and brain MRI data were obtained from 29 controls and 42 welders. R2∗ (1/T2∗) and R1 (T1 relaxation rate) values were used to estimate brain iron and manganese content, respectively. Blood metals and brain R2∗ (in the red nucleus [RN], dentate nucleus, caudate, putamen, globus pallidus, and substantia nigra) were compared between groups. Associations between brain R2∗ values and exposure metrics were tested within each group, and analyses were adjusted for potential confounders. Welders had significantly higher levels of whole blood lead, manganese, iron, and copper. Welders also had higher R2∗ RN (p =. 002), but not R1. A 2nd-order polynomial modeled the association between R2∗ RN and a long-term welding exposure metric. In welders, but not controls, R2∗ RN was associated positively with whole blood lead (r = 0.54, p =. 003), and negatively with whole blood manganese (r = -0.43, p =. 02). Higher blood Pb and lower blood Mn independently accounted for variance in high RN R2∗. Together, these data suggest that higher RN R2∗ values may mark lead exposure in welders. Because lead is a known neurotoxicant, additional studies are warranted to confirm this finding, and ascertain its scientific and public/occupational health implications.
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