PCBs may impair early childhood development

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 13 Nov 2001
Time: 06:43:53
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By Keith Mulvihill, Reuters News Service, November 9, 2001

New York (Reuters Health) - German researchers report that exposure of fetuses and newborns to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may affect their mental and physical development in early childhood.

Once used in everything from fluorescent lights and appliances to insulation and insecticides, PCBs were banned in 1977 as health hazards and carcinogens. But PCBs linger in the environment, and accumulate in the fatty tissue of birds, fish and mammals.

PCBs are passed from mother to fetus via blood and through breast milk after the child is born. About 95% of PCBs in the human body come from food, mainly dairy products and animal fat, lead investigator Dr. Gerhard Winneke of the University of Dusseldorf explained in an interview with Reuters Health.

Winneke's team monitored 171 healthy women and their infants for 3.5 years. They analyzed umbilical cord blood, blood samples and breast milk for PCBs. The infants also underwent psychological and motor development testing.

High levels of PCBs in breast milk were associated with lower mental and motor development scores from the time the children were 30 months old and after, according to their findings, which are published in the November 10th issue of The Lancet.

"We confirmed that current levels of PCBs in the environment do have a negative impact on mental and motor development in infants and young children, and that these effects persist until at least 42 months of age," Winneke told Reuters Health.

The good news is that the team found that "to some extent, a favorable or stimulating home environment counteracts this adversity," he said.

"From a preventive public health point of view it is important to reduce...levels of dietary exposure," he added.

PCB levels vary from person to person, and largely depend on an individual's diet, lifestyle and where they live. The average PCB blood level for young adults living in the United States is around 2 parts per billion. Older people tend to have higher levels of PCBs in their blood as do people who eat fish from contaminated waters.

Since there are no known drugs or procedures that can help people excrete PCBs from their bodies, experts say it is important for people to be aware of fishing advisories and to avoid eating fish contaminated with PCBs.

Last changed: March 14, 2006