Cancer research team sets world record for most toenail clippings

Toenail samples used to prevent cancer

Still kept in its FedEx envelope and not yet framed, the Guinness World Record certificate reads: “The largest collection of toenail clippings consists of samples from 24,999 individuals and was compiled by Atlantic PATH (Canada) as of 25 October 2013.”

Dr. Thompson keeps the Guinness World Record certificate in his office, for now. (Photo: Tanya Kunwongse)

But Dr. David Thompson, a Dalhousie University researcher and director of operations at Atlantic PATH (Nova Scotia), says the research facility actually has “a little more than a quarter million,” as many more toenail clippings have been collected since Oct. 25.

Researchers at Atlantic PATH, part of a national initiative to study cancer, have been collecting toenail samples, along with blood samples, urine samples, and survey answers, since 2009. Atlantic Canada has some of the country’s highest cancer rates; roughly 13,400 people are diagnosed every year in Nova Scotia. Researchers suspect that arsenic in drinking water might be a leading cause.

“Arsenic, we know, is a carcinogen,” says Thompson. “It causes, or is involved with, cancer of the waterworks: your kidney, your bladder, your urinary system. We know that there is a lot of arsenic in Nova Scotia…What we don’t know is the extent [of] arsenic getting into people’s bodies.”

Toenails, by the time they’re ready for clipping, have been in people’s bodies for six to nine months. They provide a record of what people have been eating and drinking. More importantly, they show how much arsenic the body retains instead of flushing out.

“We took a few thousand samples of drinking water, mainly from [private] wells, and then we measured the arsenic that was in the toenails of the people who had been drinking the water,” says Thompson.

A little publicity goes a long way

Toenail clippings are kept in labeled bags. (Photo: Tanya Kunwongse)

The team also discovered that most people aren’t aware of how risky arsenic in water can be, how to check their drinking water, or how to safely remove the chemical from their drinks. Those that did know found out through word of mouth, indicating that the public health sector still has a lot to educate people.

This is where toenails step in to help again.

Though it has published a few studies, Atlantic PATH won’t be able to provide conclusive results for the next few decades. While most cancer studies in Canada take place in labs and focus on how cancer develops, Atlantic PATH’s goal is to look at the overall environmental factors that induce cancer in a population. This is also why they want samples from people between the ages of 35 to 69, when cancer is most likely to develop.

The danger of long-term research is that people tend to forget it exists.

Looking for a way to raise awareness about their project, to create an incentive for people to contribute, and to thank their participants, the team decided to set a world record.

“Somebody said, ‘oh, what if someone else beats the record?’ Well, that’s great!,” says Thompson. “Then there could be another story: ‘Atlantic PATH struggle to reclaim their world record!’ People would be even more interested.”

Atlantic PATH is recruiting particpants until the end of 2014.