Biomarkers of chronic fluoride exposure in groundwater in a highly exposed population

Tewodros Rango, Avner Vengosh, Marc Jeuland, Gary M. Whitford, Redda Tekle-Haimanot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


This study examined the relation between fluoride (F) concentrations in fingernail clippings and urine and the prevalence and severity of enamel fluorosis (EF) among Ethiopian Rift Valley populations exposed to high levels of F in drinking water. The utility of fingernail clippings as a biomarker for F exposure and EF was also assessed for the first time in a high-F region. The study recorded the EF status of 386 individuals (10 to 50 years old), who consume naturally contaminated groundwater with widely varying F concentration (0.6–15 mg/L). The mean F concentrations among residents of communities with primary reliance on groundwater were 5.1 mg/kg (range: 0.5–34 mg/kg) in fingernails and 8.9 mg/L (range: 0.44–34 mg/L) in urine. We show strong positive correlations between F in drinking water and 12-hour urinary excretion (r = 0.74, p < 0.001, n = 287), fingernail F content (r = 0.6, p < 0.001, n = 258), and mean individual measures of EF severity as measured using the Thylstrup and Fejerskov (TF) Index (r = 0.42, p < 0.001, n = 316). The data indicate that both fingernail and urine measures are good biomarkers for F exposure and EF outcomes, the latter being slightly more sensitive. Cases of moderate/severe EF were significantly more common among younger subjects (10 to 15 years old) than older subjects (mostly > 25 years old) (p < 0.001), consistent with their greater exposure to F during early childhood, which is the only period of life the enamel is at risk of fluorosis. In this younger population, EF may be useful as a biomarker for identifying individuals with other potential health effects that depend on a specific age window of susceptibility. The finding of exceptionally high F concentrations in water, fingernail clippings and urine in this region should motivate further investigations of other potential health consequences such as bone disease and abnormalities in the function of the neurological and endocrine systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Oct 15 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomarkers
  • East Africa
  • Enamel fluorosis
  • Exposure timing
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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