The present work was aimed to study in petrochemical industry operators the correlation, if any, between environmental exposure to low levels of benzene and two biological exposure indexes in end-shift urine, i.e. trans, trans-muconic acid (t,t-MA) and S-phenylmercapturic acid (SPMA). Exposure to benzene was assessed in 133 male subjects employed in outdoor operations in a petrochemical plant, using personal passive-diffusive air samplers worn at the breathing zone; adsorbed benzene was determined by GC-FID analysis. S-PMA was determined by a new HPLCMS/MS method, after (quantitative) acidic hydrolysis of the cysteine conjugate precursor. t,t-MA was measured by an HPLC-UV method. Smoking habits were assessed by means of a self-administered questionnaire. Both environmental and biological monitoring data showed that benzene exposure of petrochemical industry operators was low (mean values were 0.014ppm, 101mug/g creat, and 2.8mug/g creat, for benzene, t,t-MA, and S-PMA, respectively) if compared with the ACGIH limits. Cigarette smoking was confirmed to be a strong confounding factor for the urinary excretion of both metabolites: statistically significant increases of t,t-MA and S-PMA levels were recorded in smokers when compared to non-smokers (p<0.0001). The best correlation found was that between exposure to benzene and S-PMA levels, particularly in non-smokers. This was partly due to the hydrolysis of the S-PMA precursor N-acetyl-S-(1,2-dihydro-2-hydroxyphenyl)-l-cysteine, a crucial step of the new analytical method used, which indeed reduced the variability of the results by means of an improved standardization of this critical preanalytical factor. A weaker correlation was found between exposure to benzene and t,t-MA, possibly explained by the fact that the latter is also a metabolite of sorbic acid, a common diet component. In summary, even at such low levels of exposure, urinary metabolites proved to be a useful tool for assessing individual occupational exposure to benzene, S-PMA appearing to be a more specific biomarker than t,t-MA, particularly in non-smokers.
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