Association of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals with thyroid hormones in general adult population and potential mechanisms

Min Joo Kim, Sunmi Kim, Sohyeon Choi, Inae Lee, Min Kyong Moon, Kyungho Choi, Young Joo Park, Yoon Hee Cho, Young Min Kwon, Jiyoung Yoo, Gi Jeong Cheon, Jeongim Park

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35 Scopus citations


Air pollution and fuel emissions are the common sources of human exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals. Several studies have suggested potential associations between PAHs/heavy metals and thyroid hormones, however, reports have been inconsistent. In this study, we employed a subpopulation of the adults (n = 1254) who participated in the Korean National Environmental Health Survey 2015–2017, and investigated the association of PAHs and major heavy metals with thyroid hormones, and explored the underlying mechanisms of thyroid disruption. Four PAH metabolites and three heavy metals of lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), and cadmium (Cd) were measured either in urine or in total blood. In addition, thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), TSH, thyroxine-binding globulin (TBG), and thyroid autoantibodies were measured, and peripheral deiodinase activity (GD) and thyroid's secretory capacity (GT) were calculated. Urinary Hg was negatively associated with total T3 in both males and females, while it was positively associated with total T4 among females only. Urinary Hg was related to decreased GD and increased GT in both sexes. In contrast, urinary Cd was positively associated with total T3 and GD in both male and female populations. Urinary Cd also showed a positive association with thyroid autoantibodies, but only in males. A multi-factor model considering co-exposure to multiple chemicals also resulted in similar associations. Among the measured PAH metabolites, only urinary 1-hydroxypyrene showed a negative association with total T3 in males. However, this association was marginal, and disappeared in a multi-chemical model. The present observations are suggestive that exposures to Hg and Cd might disrupt thyroid hormones, possibly through an alteration of deiodinase activity. Association of PAH exposure with thyroid hormone appears to be insignificant.

Original languageEnglish
Article number144227
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Mar 25 2021


  • Cadmium
  • Iodothyronine deiodinase
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Thyroid hormones


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