Increased urinary perchlorate was associated with increased TSH and decreased T4 for women with urinary iodine levels < 100 μg/L, a group possibly more susceptible to competitive inhibition of thyroid iodine uptake by perchlorate. The statistically significant associations of urinary perchlorate with decreased serum T4 and increased serum TSH were consistent with competitive inhibition of iodide uptake.
For women with urine iodine ≥ 100 μg/L, perchlorate was also a statistically significant predictor for TSH but not for T4. Greater iodine intake may have diminished the effect of perchlorate on T4 in these women. The significant association with TSH, but not with T4, in this group may be due to the greater sensitivity of TSH to impairment of thyroid function; that is, normal T4 levels are maintained by increasing TSH to compensate for impaired thyroid function.
Predicted changes in serum TSH and T4 with increasing perchlorate exposure () can span a notable portion of the normal medical range of TSH and T4 values. Compared with a urine level of 0.19 μg/L, urinary perchlorate of 13 μg/L (95th percentile) yields a predicted decrease in T4 of 1.64 μg/dL. The normal range for T4 is 5–12 μg/dL. A similar exposure would increase TSH by 2.12 IU/L for a woman starting with a TSH level of 3.11 IU/L (90th percentile for TSH in women ≥ 12 years of age). The normal range for TSH is 0.3–4.5 IU/L. Effect size estimates that start with the 90th percentile of TSH have more uncertainty than estimates starting with the 50th percentile because the predicted TSH levels fall further from the central portions of the original data.
The mechanism of perchlorate’s effect is competitive inhibition of iodide uptake by the thyroid (Clewell et al. 2004
; Wolff 1998
). Based on this mechanism, individuals with less iodide available to compete with perchlorate may be more vulnerable to impaired iodide uptake. Chronically impaired iodide uptake could lead to changes in serum thyroid hormones, consistent with the increased TSH and decreased T4
we find associated with increased perchlorate exposure in women with urinary iodine < 100 μg/L. The WHO (2004)
has identified median urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L as indicating sufficient iodine intake for a population. Based on concerns about adequate iodine intake, the NRC (2005)
recently recommended that consideration be given to adding iodine to all prenatal vitamins.
In the present study, perchlorate was not found to be a significant predictor of T4
or TSH in men. Previous studies report that women have a much higher risk of goiter than do men, especially in populations with marginal iodine intake (Laurberg et al. 2000
). The increased vulnerability of women may partially be caused by increased susceptibility to auto-immune thyroid disease in women, the increased demands on the thyroid during pregnancy, or the effect of estrogens on thyroid function. Estradiol has been shown to block TSH-induced sodium/iodide symporter (NIS) expression in the FRTL5 rat follicular cell line (Furlanetto et al. 1999
). Impaired NIS expression could lead to reduced ability of the thyroid follicular cells to import iodide, and thus an increased vulnerability to NIS-inhibitors such as perchlorate. Also, estrogens increase T4
-binding globulin and thus increase the demand for T4
so that free T4
levels can remain constant.
Covariates in the regression models predicted T4
and TSH levels in a manner generally consistent with previous studies. We found that estrogen use was a significant, independent, and positive predictor of T4
in both low and sufficient iodine models of women ≥ 12 years of age, but was not a significant predictor in either of the TSH models. Similar to estrogen use, pregnancy was a significant or borderline significant predictor of T4
but not TSH. Both estrogen use and pregnancy raise estrogen levels, increase thyroid binding proteins, and increase serum T4
concentrations (Glinoer 1997
). Menopause lowers estrogen levels and was a significant predictor of T4
in the regression for women with urinary iodine levels < 100 μg/L.
In NHANES III (1988–1994), non-Hispanic blacks were reported to have lower TSH than other groups, and Mexican Americans had higher T4
levels than non-Hispanic blacks and whites (Hollowell et al. 2002
). The models for TSH and T4
in the present study were consistent with these previous findings concerning race/ethnicity. Non-Hispanic blacks have also been shown to have lower urinary perchlorate levels than non-Hispanic whites, although the reason for this difference is not known (Blount et al. 2006
). Age was positively associated with TSH in women with urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L, but not significant for women with urinary iodine levels < 100 μg/L. A positive association of age and TSH was seen in NHANES III and other studies (Canaris et al. 2000
; Hollowell et al. 2002
BMI was significant in the TSH model for women with urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L, and total caloric intake was significant in the T4
model for women with urinary iodine levels < 100 μg/L. Thyroid function clearly has an effect on BMI, as seen clinically and documented in populations (Nyrnes et al. 2006
). The reverse is also true, because BMI and total caloric intake can influence the hypothalamic–pituitary–thyroidal axis, although usually at the extremes of body weight and caloric intake (Acheson et al. 1984
; Burger et al. 1987
; Danforth et al. 1979
; Loucks et al. 1992
; Loucks and Heath 1994
). Total caloric intake in NHANES is a 24-hr recall of food intake. Depending on how well recent intake reflects long-term intake, total caloric intake may parallel the effect of BMI, which was not seen in the present study. Increased caloric intake is known to increase thyroid hormone disposition through deiodination pathways (Burger et al. 1987
; Danforth et al. 1979
), increasing the conversion of T4
to the active form, triiodothyronine (T3
), and increasing conversion of T3
to inactive forms. The effect of changes in calories and carbohydrate composition of the diet on thyroid disposition may have different short- and long-term effects on T3
levels. In the present study, hours of fasting before sample collection was a borderline significant predictor in one regression model: T4
in women with sufficient iodine. Fasting for 60 hr can reduce TSH in humans, but fasting for shorter periods has unknown effects on thyroid function.
Beta-blocker drugs are commonly used to treat hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions. Beta-blockers inhibit the conversion of T4
to the more active form, T3, and increase serum TSH (Kayser et al. 1991
). Use of these drugs was positively associated with TSH in the regression for women with urinary iodine < 100 μg/L. Serum C-reactive protein was positively associated with T4
in women in each of the iodine groups. C-reactive protein is an acute phase reactant protein increased in many inflammatory conditions in response to production of tissue-generated cytokines, particularly interleukin-6, and has been used as a marker for both specific and systemic low-level inflammation conditions. It is unclear if C-reactive protein is associated with thyroid function other than thyroiditis (Jublanc et al. 2004
; Pearce et al. 2003
; Tuzcu et al. 2005
). However, the stimulus for C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, has a firm inverse relationship with serum T3
in nonthyroidal illnesses. Also, C-reactive protein and serum T4
binding proteins are synthesized by the liver; C-reactive protein may vary with an unrecognized health or physiologic condition that affects the synthesis of both proteins. The association of C-reactive protein and T4
in our study is unclear.
Other variables that are known to possibly affect thyroid function or measurements were not significant predictors in the regression models, including the categories of medications (other than estrogen use and beta-blockers), serum albumin, and serum cotinine. Generally, other medication categories were small and unlikely to have significant effects. Serum albumin did not appear in the final models. Factors such as estrogen use that increase protein binding of thyroid hormones may have accounted for variance in T4
due to protein binding that serum albumin may have otherwise explained. Serum cotinine is a marker of tobacco smoke exposure, and smoking is associated with altered thyroid function (Belin et al. 2004
; Bertelsen and Hegedus 1994
). However, tobacco smoke also contains other factors that can inhibit TSH secretion (Bartalena et al. 1995
), and perhaps is an explanation for the absence of an association of serum cotinine with either TSH or T4
Cyanide in tobacco smoke is metabolized to thiocyanate, a competitive inhibitor of iodide uptake (Tonacchera et al. 2004
). Also, nitrate from dietary sources and from formation by intestinal bacteria can compete with iodide. In vitro
studies indicate that perchlorate is a more potent inhibitor of human NIS, with potencies 15, 30, and 240 times greater than thiocyanate, iodide, and nitrate, respectively (Tonacchera et al. 2004
). Thus, the ability of NIS to transport adequate amounts of iodide depends on the relative concentrations of these competing anions. Based on the relative concentrations of perchlorate, nitrate, and thiocyanate likely to be found in human serum, several researchers have predicted that nitrate and thiocyanate are more likely than perchlorate to impair thyroid function (DeGroef et al. 2006
; Gibbs 2006
). Thiocyanate-induced NIS inhibition is a plausible explanation of the association of smoking with goiter in populations with low iodine intake (Knudsen et al. 2002
) and is analogous to the association of perchlorate exposure with thyroid hormone levels observed in our study. However, in women with urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L, urinary thiocyanate was negatively associated with serum TSH, a direction unexpected based on a mechanism of NIS inhibition. The explanation for this is unclear. Urinary nitrate was negatively associated with serum T4
in women with urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L, a direction consistent with inhibition of NIS. Goitrogenic effects of nitrate intake in animal studies have been observed (Wyngaarden et al. 1953
), but there are few studies in humans.
Recently the NRC (2005)
evaluated the potential health effects of perchlorate ingestion. Based on studies of long-term treatment of hyperthyroidism and clinical studies of healthy adults, the NRC panel estimated that a perchlorate dose of > 0.40 mg/kg/day would be required to cause hypothyroidism in adults, although lower doses may lead to hypothyroidism in sensitive subpopulations (NRC 2005
Comparison of our results to previous studies requires consideration of a
) target population group studied, b
) estimated dose of perchlorate, c
) duration of exposure to perchlorate dose, and d
) sample size (statistical power). First, for men, we found no relationship with perchlorate and T4
or TSH. This finding is in general agreement with predicted effects of this level of perchlorate exposure based on reported studies of exposure in men. Lawrence et al. (2000)
administered 10 mg perchlorate daily (~ 0.14 mg/kg) to iodine-sufficient adult males for 14 days and found a 10% decrease in radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU), but with no change in TSH or free T4
Greer et al. (2002)
administered perchlorate to 16 male and 21 female volunteers for 14 days, and found increasing RAIU inhibition for doses between 0.02 and 0.5 mg/kg/day, with no perchlorate-related change in TSH or free T4
. An unknown number of women in that study may have had urinary iodine < 100 μg/L, but if the women were typical of the U.S. population (Caldwell et al. 2005
), the predicted number of women with low urinary iodine would be 7–8. Braverman et al. (2006)
administered perchlorate to 13 iodine-sufficient male and female volunteers at daily doses of 0.5 mg and 3 mg for 6 months, and found no change in RAIU, TSH, or free T4
. Two other studies have also found that workers exposed to perchlorate intermittently for long periods did not have significant changes to serum TSH or T4
levels (Braverman et al. 2005
; Lamm et al. 1999
). These study populations were either exclusively (Braverman et al 2005
) or predominantly (Lamm et al 1999
For women, only two perchlorate studies have focused on women or included a large percentage of women. A recent study of 184 pregnant Chilean women, with mean urinary perchlorate levels near the 99th percentile for women in NHANES 2001–2002, found no perchlorate relationship with thyroid function (Tellez et al. 2005
). Of these 184 women, 181 had mean urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L and only 3 had mean levels < 100 μg/L. Therefore, the results of Tellez et al. (2005)
would compare to the present results for women with urinary iodine levels ≥ 100 μg/L. Urinary iodine levels in the Chilean study population (median 269 μg/L) were higher than urinary iodine levels found in the NHANES 2001–2002 population [median 168 μg/L; 95% confidence interval, 159–178 μg/L]. The Chilean women (Tellez et al. 2005
) were also pregnant, which increases the variability in T4
and TSH. This increased variability would make an association between perchlorate and thyroid function harder to find. The second study with a large percentage of women was Greer et al. (2002)
discussed above. These two studies are compared with the present study in .
Comparison of perchlorate studies targeting women or including a high percentage of women.
indicates that our study is the first to target and separately analyze results for women with lower levels of urinary iodine, a potentially susceptible population. A second special attribute of the present study is the much larger sample size of women, affording more statistical power to detect a potential effect. By averaging over many women, the current data likely represents a good approximation of a population steady-state exposure to perchlorate that women have had for a long period of time. If a mid- to long-term exposure is needed for perchlorate to affect thyroid function, this data would have a better opportunity to detect that effect than study designs using short-term exposures. The influence of duration of exposure merits further study.
Accurate assessment of exposure is critical to detect biochemical end points potentially related to exposure. Our laboratory recently developed an improved method for measuring urinary perchlorate, which enhances individual perchlorate exposure assessment (Valentin-Blasini et al. 2005
). The use of this new urinary perchlorate measurement strengthens the ability of the present study to detect potential associations with T4
The present study has the general limitations of a cross-sectional analysis. Therefore, the relationship between urinary perchlorate and thyroid function was examined with attention to the potential influences of chance, bias, or confounding. Perchlorate (as with any of the significant predictor variables) could be a surrogate for another unrecognized determinant of thyroid function. We also assumed in this analysis that urinary perchlorate correlates with levels in the thyroid stroma and tissue, a kinetically distinct compartment. This would be the case in a population with stable, chronic exposures, which is likely but not certain in this population. A large sample size helps to average such potential kinetic differences. Finally, a measurement of free T4 would be an improvement to the study.