Urinary mercapturic acids to assess exposure to benzene and other volatile organic compounds in coke oven workers

Gianfranco Frigerio, Laura Campo, Rosa Mercadante, Danuta Mielżyńska-švach, Sofia Pavanello, Silvia Fustinoni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Coke production was classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Besides polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, coke oven workers may be exposed to benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The aim of this study was to assess the exposure to several VOCs in 49 coke oven workers and 49 individuals living in the same area by determining urinary mercapturic acids. Active tobacco smoking was an exclusion criterion for both groups. Mercapturic acids were investigated by a validated isotopic dilution LC-MS/MS method. Linear models were built to correct for different confounding variables. Urinary levels of N-acetyl-S-phenyl-L-cysteine (SPMA) (metabolite of benzene), N-acetyl-S-(2-hydroxy-1/2-phenylethyl)-L-cysteine (PHEMA) (metabolite of styrene), N-acetyl-S-(2-cyanoethyl)-L-cysteine (CEMA) (metabolite of acrylonitrile), N-acetyl-S-[1-(hydroxymethyl)-2-propen-1-yl)-L-cysteine and N-acetyl-S-(2-hydroxy-3-buten-1-yl)-L-cysteine (MHBMA) (metabolites of 1,3-butadiene) were 2–10 fold higher in workers than in controls (p < 0.05). For SPMA, in particular, median levels were 0.02 and 0.31 µg/g creatinine in workers and controls, respectively. Among workers, coke makers were more exposed to PHEMA and SPMA than foremen and engine operators. The comparison with biological limit values shows that the exposure of workers was within 20% of the limit values for all biomarkers, moreover three subjects exceeded the restrictive occupational limit value recently proposed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) for SPMA.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1801
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Coke oven workers
  • Human biomonitoring
  • Mercapturic acids
  • S-phenyl mercapturic acid
  • Steel industry workers
  • Volatile organic compounds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis

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