Unit of Metals & Health

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The aim of our research is to identify toxic effects of metals, and further, to understand causal relationships between metal exposure and various diseases, and how susceptibility factors influence these relationships.

Exposure to toxic metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, are major threats to public health, globally as well as in Sweden. Exposure often occurs via drinking water and/ or food. The unit has for many years been world-leading in research on arsenic and cadmium. Today our research primarily concerns metals with major impact on public health, and for which there still are gaps in knowedge, i.e. for arsenic, cadmium, manganese, lithium, and boron. We also elucidate the importance of essential elements such as iron, zinc, and selenium, as they interact with toxic metals. A majority of our research is focused on health effects of metal exposure early in life, a particularly sensitive period to toxic insults.

We study mechanisms of metal toxicity, especially oxidative stress, epigenetic and hormone-related changes. Many toxic metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead, cause oxidative stress. Recent research suggests that metals can interfere with epigenetic processes, which likely render some metals carcinogenic, although they appear not to be strongly mutagenic. Moreover, epigenetic interefence can explain why exposure to metals early in life seem to cause diseases later in life. Several of the metals are endocrine disruptors, particularly cadmium, but the hormone systems affected are still to be identified.

There are large individual differences in susceptibility to metal toxicity and we evaluate sensitivity factors such as gender, nutritional status, and genetics. For example, studies have shown that women generally have higher levels of cadmium in their bodies than men. Genetics seems to play a significant role for metal susceptibility. One of the clearest examples of gene-environment interaction is the gene AS3MT, which we have shown to strongly affect the metabolism and sensitivity to arsenic in the body.

The unit collaborates with many research groups, both in Sweden and elsewhere, e.g., in studies concerning metal exposure around the Mediterranean Sea, in the Seychelles, Bangladesh, and the Andes Mountains. Successful research in this area requires sensitive and specific analysis of specific biomarkers of exposure and early effects. Our exposure measurements are largely based on analyzes by ICP-MS. For speciation of arsenic metabolites we use HPLC on-line with ICP-MS. The laboratory also has expertise, instruments and methods for analysis of genetic damage, by determination of telomere length, gene expression, and epigenetic changes, including DNA methylation and microRNAs. Further, the laboratory performs genotyping of various types of polymorphisms.

Researchers at the unit participate in health risk assessments, particularly for the EFSA, the Swedish National Food Administration, the Swedish Chemicals Agency, and the American Academy of Sciences. Our research has, for example, been crucial for the risk assessment of arsenic and cadmium in EFSA, the American Academy of Sciences, and the US EPA.


  • Swedish Research Council
  • Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS)
  • Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (FORTE)
  • AFA Insurance
  • Sida (via Swedish Research Council)
  • National Institute of Health, U.S.A.

Ongoing projects

Head of Unit


Karin Broberg

Organizational unit: Metals and health
E-mail: karin.broberg@ki.se

Unit members

Annachiara Malin IgraPhD student
Ayman AlhamdowPhD student
Barbro NermellBiomedical scientist
Florencia HarariPostdoc
Helena SkröderPhD student
Jessica De Loma OlsonR&D trainee
Karin BrobergProfessor
Klara Gustin MossegårdResearch assistant
Maria HerlinPostdoc
Maria KipplerAssistant professor
Marie VahterProfessor
Michael LeviLaboratory technician
Michael PalmgrenAssociated
Sabrina LlopPostdoc