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Substance over style: what hair
can tell us

by Rachel Broadley

Associate Professor Enzo Lombi from UniSA’s Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation.Associate Professor Enzo Lombi from UniSA’s Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation.

Hair can tell you a lot about a person, not just because of its style but because of what it reveals about your health according to two UniSA researchers who have recently had their work on hair analysis published in a prestigious journal.

Associate Professor Enzo Lombi (pictured), at UniSA’s Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation, and Dr Ivan Kempson, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Ian Wark Research Institute, had their review Hair analysis as a biomonitor for toxicology, disease and health status published in Chemical Society Reviews in April at the invitation of Cambridge University’s Royal Chemical Society.

Dr Kempson said he was very pleased to be asked to contribute to the review, which covers the potential and limitations of using hair analysis to monitor issues such as micronutrient deficiencies and exposure to contaminants.

Associate Professor Lombi said that much work has been done over the past 20 years in the field of hair analysis.

“Hair analysis has some advantages compared to blood and urine because you can pick up material in hair over time compared to blood and urine which only reveal exposure within a limited period,” he said.

“However, there are also some drawbacks so it’s important to highlight the potential and limitations of the technique.

“At the moment we are working with the University of Aberdeen in Scotland on a project sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, which examines mercury in hair for people who work in industries and could be exposed to contamination in countries that still use mercury cells. We have employed the Australian Synchrotron to investigate the form and distribution of mercury in hair of exposed workers in order to identify the pathway of mercury exposure.

“There are a lot of environmental issues to be addressed but hair is the only reliable biomarker to look at past exposure, so it’s important to review what the potential as well as the limitations are and find the way forward to be able to best use this test.”

Dr Kempson, who has been an adjunct researcher with UniSA for two years, said people should be careful of using hair analysis to monitor their health.

“It is common for people to look for alternative and cheaper ways to identify health-related problems, especially in Australia where people can live remote to health services,” said Dr Kempson.

“Hair analysis can be very convenient as you just post the sample to be analysed, however there is major risk of inappropriate diagnosis so people could be wasting their money and potentially compromising their health if they rely on hair analysis.

“What we have highlighted is that hair analysis has a place in scientific research, especially in the understanding of acute and chronic exposure to pollutants and understanding the cause and effects of disease.”

Dr Kempson and Assoc Prof Lombi will continue to study this topic and hope to publish the work they have carried out in conjunction with the University of Aberdeen soon.