American Journal of Analytical Chemistry, 2012, 3, 646-650 Published Online September 2012 (
Measurement of the Trace Elements Cu, Zn, Fe, and Mg
and the Ultratrace Elements Cd, Co, Mn, and Pb in
Limited Quantity Human Plasma and Serum Samples by
Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry
Gang Li1, John D. Brockman2*, Shih-Wen Lin3, Christian C. Abnet3, Lance A. Schell1,
J. David Robertson1,2
1University of Missouri-Columbia, Department of Chemistry, Columbia, USA
2University of Missouri-Columbia, Research Reactor, Columbia, USA
3National Cancer Institute, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, Bethesda, USA
Email: *
Received July 9, 2012; revised August 14, 2012; accepted August 27, 2012
In public health studies limited volumes of blood are often collected and stored for future hypothesis testing. Archived
samples are irreplaceable and therefore it is valuable to develop analytical techniques that require minimal sample vol-
ume. This work describes the measurement of trace elements Mg, Cu, Fe, Zn and ultratrace elements Cd, Co, Mn, Pb in
limited quantity (150 µL) human serum or plasma samples. Samples were digested using a hotblock and analyzed using
inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). The analytical method was evaluated using a quadrupole (Q)
and sector field high resolution (SF) instrument to analyze trace elements in Seronorm® quality control serum material.
The method was used to analyze 1888 blinded human plasma samples which were archived for the National Cancer
Institute from the Nutrition Intervention Trial in Linxian China. The inductively coupled plasma method was capable of
accurately analyzed limited quantity samples of human serum and plasma for the trace elements Mg, Cu, Fe Zn and the
ultra trace elements Co, Mn and Pb. The concentration of Cd in human plasma samples was below the level of detection
for 75% of the samples analyzed.
Keywords: Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry; Trace Element Measurements; Human Plasma; Serum
1. Introduction
Epidemiologists and scientists interested in studying nu-
tritional, environmental, biologic and genetic factors that
influence human health often collect and process blood
samples into plasma or serum for analytical testing. Serum,
plasma and blood samples are used to test hypotheses relat-
ing to trace element exposure/status, environmental pol-
lutants, antibodies, proteins, DNA adducts and genotypes.
Because of limited sample availability it is advantageous
to develop analytical methods that require minimal sam-
ple volume.
Many studies that report trace element concentrations
in serum and plasma samples require a minimum of 500
µL of sample [1-5]. In these publications, sample prepa-
ration is limited to a “dilute and shoot” procedure. The so
called “dilute and shoot” methods rely on dilution of the
sample, often with a mixture of ammonium hydroxide,
triton X and EDTA, prior to analysis [6]. The advantages
include minimum sample preparation which speeds up
analysis and limits potential sources of contamination.
However the resulting sample matrix requires a matched
calibration curve for accurate quantification which must
be constructed using standard additions to a sample. Fur-
thermore, the presence of undigested proteins often results
in buildup of residue on the nebulizer and sample intro-
duction system and can cause instrument instability and
clogging. Finally, the dilute and shoot methods require a
nebulizer with sample flow rates of 1 mL/min or greater.
This can be a challenge in small volume samples for ul-
tra-trace elements such as Co, Pb and Cd which require a
1:10 to 1:20 sample dilution.
Digestion procedures have the advantage of eliminate-
ing proteins which reduces matrix effects and instrument
clogging. However, the digestion procedure can introduce
random contamination and volatile elements such as Hg
may be compromised. It is therefore important to analyze
digestion blanks to determine if random contaminating of
the sample has occurred [7].
*Corresponding autho
opyright © 2012 SciRes. AJAC
G. LI ET AL. 647
This paper examines the accuracy and precision of a
digestion procedure for analysis of the trace elements Cu,
Zn, Fe, Mg and the ultratrace elements Cd, Co, Mn and
Pb in 150 µL of serum and plasma samples. The digestion
method was evaluated by analyzing blank tubes and Sero-
norm® serum quality control material using high resolu-
tion sector field (SF) ICPMS and quadrupole (Q) ICP-MS.
The method was then used to analyze 1888 blinded plasma
samples for Mg, Cu, Fe, Zn, Cd, Co, Mn, Pb in a blinded
study being conducted by the National Cancer Institute
2. Experimental
2.1. Reagent and Standards
High purity water was obtained using a Millipore Millie-
Q water purification system with a resistivity of 18.2 M.
OptimaTM grade nitric acid (Fisher) and Trace Select grade
hydrogen peroxide (Fluka) were used in all procedures.
Calibration curves were constructed using commercial sta-
ndards from Analytics. Analytical methodology was de-
veloped using in-house serum samples and Seronorm® trace
elements serum level 1 (Accurate Chemical and Scientific
Corporation). The Seronorm® serum was reconstituted fol-
lowing the manufacturer’s directions.
2.2. Sample Digestion
A 150 µL aliquot of serum or plasma was transferred into
a precleaned 15 mL polypro-pylene tube (Cen-Med). The
sample mass was measured using a Mettler Toledo AT251
analytical balance. An addition of 150 µL of concentrated
nitric acid and 100 µL of hydrogen peroxide were added
to each sample tube. The tubes were loosely capped, cen-
trifuged for 10 minutes at 4400 r/min and samples were
placed on an environmental express hot-block digester at
room temperature (Environmental Express). The hot-block
heated samples to 96˚C for 90 minutes. If particulate was
observed in the samples following 90 minutes at 96˚C they
were placed back on the hot block digester for an addi-
tional 60 minutes.
2.3. Sample Preparation for the VG Axiom High
Resolution Sector Field ICP-MS Analysis
Digested samples were diluted (1:10) with 18.2 M-cm
H2O and the internal standards In, Ga, Cs and Bi for analy-
sis of the ultra-trace elements Mn, Co, Cd and Pb. A sec-
ond dilution (1:1000) was prepared with the internal stan-
dards Cd and Y for analysis of the trace elements Mg, Fe,
Cu and Zn. The diluted samples were centrifuged at 4400
r/min for 5 minutes prior to analysis.
2.4. Sample Preparation for NexION
Quadrupole ICP-MS Analysis
Digested samples were diluted with 1:20 with 18.2 M-cm
H2O and the internal standards Sc, Ga, Y, In and Bi. The
samples were centrifuged at 4400 r/min for 5 minutes prior
to analysis.
2.5. Instrument Parameters
Measurements were performed using a NexION 300 X
quadruple (Q) ICP-MS (Perkin Elmer, Ma USA) and a
VG Axiom high resolution sector field (SF) ICP-MS (VG
Elemental, Winsford UK). The instrument parameters are
summarized in Table 1. The (Q) ICP-MS was operated
in standard mode for the analysis of the ultratrace elements
Pb, Cd, Co and Mn and in collision mode for the analysis
of Fe, Cu, Zn and Mg. The use of high purity He colli-
sion gas served the dual purpose of reducing polyatomic
interferences and decreasing the instrument sensitivity so
Table 1. ICP-MS Instrument operational conditions and data acquisition parameters.
Conditions VG Axiom HR-ICP-MS NexION 300X ICP-QMS
ICP RF power (W) 1400 1600
Plasma gas flow (L/min) 16 18
Auxiliary gas flow (L/min) 1.2 1.2
Nebulizer gas flow (L/min) 1.15 0.98
Collision gas flow (L/min) N/A He 3.0
DRC settings (RPq Values) N/A 0.25
Sample and skimmer cones Nickel Nickel/aluminum
Spray chamber Jacketed cyclonic spray chamber Jacketed cyclonic spray chamber
Nebulizer Micro-flow PFA (100 µL/min) 200 µL/min Meinhard glass
Dwell time (ms) 30 50
Resolution 6000 300
Detector Continuous dynode electron multiplier Sequential dynode electron multiplier
Washout time 60 60
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJAC
that Fe, Cu, Zn and Mg could be measured in the 1:20
dilution. The quadrupole analysis was checked by analyz-
ing trace and ultra t race elements at a mass resolution of
6000 using a VG axiom SF ICP-MS. The (SF) ICP-MS
was operated at a resolution of 6000 to eliminate mass
3. Results
The calibration range and linearity are reported in Table
2. Calibration curves were constructed using a zero point
standard and a four point calibration series. The isotope,
concentration range and linear response function of Q
ICPMS instruments are given in Table 2. The R2 value
for the response function was greater than 0.998 for all
calibration curves. The isotope 26Mg was measured in the
Q ICPMS method because 24Mg, which has a higher abun-
dance occasionally produced count rates outside the up-
per limits of the sequential dynode electron multiplier de-
tector of the (Q) ICP-MS. The isotope 57Fe was measured
in the (Q) ICP-MS method to avoid interference from
40Ar16O+. The high resolution (SF) ICP-MS was capable
of resolving the interfering 40Ar16O+ and 56Fe.
The instrumental limit of detection (LOD) and method
LOD for the measurement of Mg, Cu, Fe, Zn, Cd, Co, Mn,
Pb and Mn by (Q) ICP-MS is presented in Table 3. The
instrumental LOD was calculated as 3.3 times the stan-
dard deviation of 10 replicates of the instrument blank.
The method LOD was determined by following the sam-
ple preparation and analysis procedures using 20 blank
polypropylene tubes. The method LOD was calculated as
3.3 times the standards deviation of the 20 replicates and
accounts for the dilution factor used in the experiments.
The accuracy and precision of the method was checked
by analyzing replicates of 150 µL Seronorm® trace ele-
ments serum level the (SF) ICP-MS and the (Q) ICP-MS.
The analysis was performed on 3 sets of 3 Seronorm®
samples prepared and analyzed on 3 different days over a
period of 15 days by 1 analyst. Results are presented in
Table 4. A single element Mo standard was included to
determine a correction factor for 95Mo16O which interferes
with the measurement of 111Cd. The isotope 111Cd was
Table 2. Linearity and range of the quadrupole (Q) ICP-
MS calibration.
Isotope Concentration range, µg/L Q equation
55Mn 0.5 - 10 Y = 2.8E4·X 7.4E2
59Co 0.05 - 1.0 Y = 2.3E4·X + 6.8E1
111Cd 0.05 - 1.0 Y = 1.6E3·X + 4.1E0
208Pb 0.05 - 1.0 Y = 9.3E3·X + 6.6E1
26Mg 200 - 1500 Y = 4.1E1·X 9.5E1
57Fe 10 - 150 Y = 3.2E1·X 2.4E1
63Cu 10 - 150 Y = 1.6E1·X + 5.7E2
66Zn 10 - 150 Y = 1.7E2·X + 4.4E2
Table 3. Detection limits measured by quadrupole (Q) ICP-
Instrument LOD µg/L Method LOD µg/L
55Mn 4.9E03 1.1E01
59Co 9.6E04 1.9E02
111Cd 1.9E03 3.8E02
208Pb 2.2E03 3.0E02
26Mg 2.9E01 5.8E+00
57Fe 4.3E01 8.6E+00
63Cu 1.6E02 3.2E01
66Zn 4.3E01 8.6E+00
Table 4. Seronorm® analysis performed by VG axiom high
resolution sector fiel d and Ne xION quadrupole ICP MS.
Element nSF ICPMS
mean(SD) Q ICPMS mean
(SD) Seronorm®
certified value
Mna 912.3 (0.1) 14.4 (0.14) 14.1 - 15.9
Coa 91.51 (0.06) 1.70 (0.07) 0.9 - 1.5
Cda 90.11 (0.02) 0.12 (0.02) 0.126
Pba 91.14 (0.09) 1.19 (0.07) 1.02
Mgb 920.0 (1.0) 18.7 (1.1) 18.8 - 21.4
Feb 91.36 (0.04) 1.38 (0.03) 1.31 - 1.47
Cub 91.69 (0.08) 1.49 (0.13) 1.607 - 1.775
Znb 91.65 (0.07) 1.65 (0.01) 1.667 - 1.809
aµg/L; bmg/L.
chosen over the more abundant 114Cd to avoid potential
interference from 114Sn.
The hotblock digestion method and the Nexion Q ICPMS
were used to analyze 1888 plasma samples and 102 blinded
quality control samples for Mn, Co, Cd, Pb, Mg, Fe, Cu
and Zn for a study being conducted by the NCI. Samples
were analyzed in batches of 60 to 90 samples with 3 di-
gestion blanks, 3 Seronorm® serum quality control sam-
ples and 1 spiked Seronorm® serum quality control sam-
ple. A single element Mo standard was included in each
batch to correct for the 95Mo16O interference on 111Cd. In
plasma samples the 111Cd concentration was much lower
than the Seronorm® serum and the 95Mo16O interference
accounted for an average of 40% of the signal intensity
measured at 111 amu. The measured concentrations in the
quality control material and spike recoveries are summa-
rized in Table 5. The Zn values were consistently less
than the certified values. The spike recovery values were
greater than 90% for all elements except Cu and Zn. The
plasma samples and the Seronorm® serum were not cor-
rected for spike recovery. The 66 digestion blanks on av-
erage contributed less than 5% of the plasma concentra-
tion for each the trace and ultra trace elements with the
exception of Pb. The digestion blank on average contrib-
uted 17% of the Pb measured in the mean sample con-
centration and indicates that lead contamination occurred
during sample digestion.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJAC
G. LI ET AL. 649
Unknown to the laboratory 102 quality control samples
were prepared from a pooled batch of plasma and ana-
lyzed with the samples. One of the quality control sam-
ples was an outlier that contained high levels of Fe, Zn
and Cu and low levels of Mn, Co and Pb and was removed
from the analysis. Fourteen of the quality control samples
had values less than the LOD for Cd. Of the 102 samples
97 were observed to be cloudy white by the analyst. The
analysis of the blinded, pooled quality control material is
valuable in that it provides a measure of the variance (CV)
associated with the analysis of a 150 µL sample. The CVs
for Mn, Co, Cd, Pb in the blinded quality control samples
were 7.5%, 16%, 131% and 8.0%. The high CV for Co
and Cd is likely the result of measuring these elements
near the LOD and below the limit of quantification (3.3 ×
LOD). The CVs for Mg, Fe, Cu and Zn were 8.4%, 9.4%,
8.3% and 9.9%.
Plasma samples archived from the Linxian Nutrition
Intervention Trial were analyzed using the Q ICP MS
method. The 50th, 75th and 90th percentile of Mn, Co, Cd.
Pb, Mg, Fe, Cu and Zn are reported in Table 6 where N
is the number of samples measured above the detection
limit. For Cd, 75% of the samples were below the LOD
of 0.06 µg/L. This LOD differs from the LOD in Table 3
in that it is the maximum LOD observed over 4 months
of data collection. Of the original 1888 samples, 9 were
lost due to analyst error.
Table 5. Results from analysis of 69 Serono rm® serum samples
co-analyzed with 1888 plasma samples.
Element n Measured value Seronorm®
certified value Spike recovery
Mna 66 15.9 (0.7) 14.1 - 15.9 100
Coa 66 1.45 (0.3) 0.9 - 1.5 97
Cda 66 0.150 (0.04) 0.126 96
Pba 66 1.20 (0.24) 1.02 92
Mgb 66 19.1 (1.0) 18.8 - 21.4 95
Feb 66 1.33 (0.07) 1.31 - 1.47 93
Cub 66 1.58 (0.08) 1.607 - 1.775 83
Znb 66 1.27 (0.10) 1.667 - 1.809 76
aµg/L; bmg/L.
Table 6. Summary of the analysis of 1888 plasma samples
Element N 50%a 75%a 90%a
Mn 1879 3.83 4.25 4.96
Co 1879 0.40 0.47 0.60
Cd 469 <0.05 <0.05 0.06
Pb 1785 0.31 0.44 0.64
Mg 1879 24,186 27,855 30,998
Fe 1879 1221 1516 1856
Cu 1879 917 1034 1139
Zn 1879 921 1043 1173
4. Discussion
The external calibration curves reported in Table 2 were
linear over the measured concentration range for each
measurement technique with R2 values of greater than
0.998. The quality control results presented in Tables 4
and 5 and show that the (Q) ICP-MS and the (SF)
ICP-MS methods both gave satisfactory results. This in-
dicates that there were not significant mass interferences
that the (Q) ICP-MS method was unable to handle using
the collision gas. Based on this observation the (Q) ICP-
MS method was used for all subsequent analysis.
Sample contamination may occur during sample analy-
sis at the analytical laboratory. The presence of sample
contamination that results from sample analysis was tracked
using digestion blanks and quality control samples. The
digestion blanks indicate that random Pb contamination
of samples in the preparatory laboratory may occur using
this method. However, these analytical blanks do not ac-
count for contamination that occurred prior to sample
preparation and analysis. The Linxian Nutrition Interven-
tion Trial collected whole blood and processed it into
plasma samples which were archived for future analysis.
The concentration of Mn and Co in samples could be
compromised by the stainless steel needle stick used to
collect blood [8]. A recent study by Penny and Overgaard
in 2010 indicates that the needle stick may not signify-
cantly contribute Cr and potentially other metals if the
first vial of blood is discarded and the second vial is used
analysis [9]. Plasma samples are prepared by adding an
anticoagulant to whole blood followed by centrifugation.
In most cases the anticoagulant is heparin or an EDTA
salt. Both of these chemicals may result in contamination
of trace and ultratrace elements. In addition the sample
collection tubes and rubber stoppers are potential sources
of contamination. It has been this laboratories experience
that rubber stoppers used to seal vials contain significant
levels of Pb and Zn and their contact with the samples
should be minimized.
The Linxian Nutrition Intervention Trial study samples
were blinded to the analysis laboratory. Each sample was
graded on appearance prior to digestion and analysis. In
the 1888 samples we classified 104 as pink and an addi-
tional 48 as red which is indicative that hemolysis oc-
curred when plasma samples were prepared from whole
blood. We classified 92 samples as cloudy white which
may indicate that the plasma is contaminated by a portion
of the buffy coat. We compared the mean concentration
value of samples classified as pink, red and cloudy white
with normal samples using a 2-tailed independent sam-
ples t-test assuming equal variance (IBM SPSS 19). The
mean Fe concentration in the pink and red samples and
the Cu concentration in the red samples were significantly
elevated (p < 0.05) when compared to normal samples.
The mean Mg concentrations was significantly elevated
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJAC
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJAC
(p < 0.05) and the Co concentration was significantly re-
duced (p < 0.05) in the cloudy white samples when com-
pared to normal samples. Based on this analysis it is im-
portant for the analytical testing laboratory to provide
qualitative information about the samples. At a minimum
sample color should be noted.
5. Conclusion
We have demonstrated that a hotblock digestion method
coupled with high resolution sector field and Q ICPMS is
capable of accurately analyzing Mn, Co, Cd, Pb, Mg, Fe,
Cu and Zn in 150 µL plasma and serum samples. The
minimal sample volume required by the analysis is im-
portant because it preserves sample and allows research-
ers to couple trace element measurement with other ana-
lytical techniques to measure antibodies, proteins, DNA
adducts and genotypes. To the best of our knowledge,
there have been no other studies published in the litera-
ture that have quantified the trace and ultratrace elements
with this low sample volume. The method was used to
analyze 1888 plasma samples for Mn, Co, Cd, Pb, Mg,
Fe, Cu and Zn.
6. Acknowledgements
This research was supported in part by the Intramural
Research Program of the NIH, National Cancer Institute,
Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.
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