The sinking of the ‘Prestige’ oil tanker in front of the Galician coast (NW of Spain) in November 2002 offered a unique opportunity to analyze intermediate cytogenetic and endocrine effects among people exposed to the complex mixture of substances that oil constitutes, including several toxic heavy metals. In this work we evaluated the relationship between exposure to heavy metals (blood concentrations of aluminium, cadmium, nickel, lead and zinc) and genotoxic parameters (sister chromatid exchanges, micronucleus test and comet assay) or endocrine parameters (plasmatic concentrations of prolactin and cortisol) in subjects exposed to ‘Prestige’ oil during cleaning tasks developed after the spillage.
Concentrations of lead were significantly related to the comet assay even after adjusting by age, sex and smoking. Cortisol concentrations were significantly influenced by aluminium, nickel (both, inversely) and cadmium (positively). Women had clearly higher concentrations of prolactin and cortisol, even when adjusting by age, smoking, cadmium, aluminium or nickel. Plasmatic cortisol was jointly influenced by gender, smoking and aluminium or nickel (all p < 0.05). In women there was a strong relationship between concentrations of cadmium and prolactin (β = 0.37, p = 0.031). When the effects of cadmium, aluminium and nickel on cortisol were simultaneously assessed, only the latter two metals remained statistically significant. Among parameters analysed, cortisol appeared to be the most sensitive to the effects of metal exposure. Plasma levels of cortisol deserve further evaluation as a potentially relevant biomarker to assess the effects of exposure to heavy metals.