Chronic exposure to toxic metals is a serious global health concern. However, population-wide biomonitoring is costly and carries several sampling constraints. Though hair sampling can be a useful way to assess environmental exposure, external contamination is a longstanding concern, and a pre-cleaning step prior to metal quantification has long been recommended despite a lack of evidence for its efficacy. In this study, we quantified the spatial distribution of 16 elements in unwashed human hair samples using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), then tested how two common pre-cleaning treatments (Triton-ethanol, Triton-nitric acid) affected metal content in external and interior layers of hair using LA-ICP-MS. We show that elements differ in their spatial distribution across hair and that pre-cleaning is not consistent in its effect on element concentrations and decreases interior concentrations of some elements. We demonstrate that differences among individuals can be quantified reliably with LA-ICP-MS analysis of interior concentrations of unwashed hair. Our study tests the widespread notion that pre-cleaning is essential in analyses of hair for environmental exposure to metals, and examines the benefits of a unified approach to analysis of metals in hair using LA-ICP-MS.
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