Early-life exposures to solvent linked to drug abuse.

Jan 16, 2011

Aschengrau, A, JM Weinberg, PA Janulewicz, ME Romano, LG Gallagher, MR Winter, BR Martin, VM Vieira, TF Webster, RF White and DM Ozonoff.  2011. Affinity for risky behaviors following prenatal and early childhood exposure to tetrachloroethylene (PCE)-contaminated drinking water: a retrospective cohort study Environmental Health http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1186/1476-069X-10-102.

Synopsis by Joe Braun

Adults exposed to a chemical in drinking water during their gestation and childhood were more likely to engage in risky behaviors as teenagers and adults.

A new study found that higher in utero and childhood exposure to a solvent known as PCE increased the risk of cigarette, drug, and alcohol use as a teenager and young adult.

Some previous studies in humans have reported lower cognition and more behavior problems in children exposed to solvents like PCE during gestation and childhood.  However, no studies have determined whether these associations persist into later life.  This is the first study to evaluate the behavioral consequences of early life PCE exposure in adulthood.

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is a solvent that is used in dry cleaning and metal degreasing.   People can be exposed if they work in certain industries or by drinking contaminated water.  People exposed to PCE at their jobs are at increased risk of some cancers and Parkinson's Disease.  PCE levels in drinking water are regulated by the US EPA and levels cannot exceed 5 parts per billion (ppb). 

PCE was used in the vinyl lining sprayed into 660 miles of water supply pipes in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts in the 1960s. It was assumed that the PCE evaporated after application, but was later detected in the drinking water of nearly 100 Massachusetts towns and cities. In the 1980s the levels of PCE in the drinking water ranged from 1.5 to 80 ppb. 

Researchers contacted 1,378 Cape Cod, Mass. residents in their late 20's and early 30's, and then asked them questions related to their illicit drug (such as, cocaine, designer drugs, hallucinogens, heroin), alcohol and cigarette use while they were teenagers and young adults. The investigators linked these surveys to municipal water records which were used to estimate the concentration of PCE in the water of each person's home.  Birth certificates were also linked to this data to control for factors, such as socioeconomic status, mental illness, and mother's drug and alcohol use.

The researchers estimated that participants were exposed to PCE concentration between 1 and 5,197 ppb.  This is consistent with previous studies that directly measured PCE concentrations in the 1980s.  Individuals with the highest PCE exposure were 60 percent more likely to use two or more illicit drugs as a teenager or young adult compared to individuals with no PCE exposure. Those participants with higher PCE exposure had twice the risk of using crack cocaine as those with no exposure. The association was stronger if the mothers did not smoke, drink or use drugs while pregnant with the participant.

The main limitation of this study is that it did not measures drinking water consumption for the mother during gestation or the participant during childhood. Thus, the investigators were unable to directly measure how much PCE individuals ingested.  

This study is unique because it was able to examien the relationship between exposures during gestation/childhood and adult behaviors.  This research is very important since many new studies are identifying environmental factors that affect childhood behavior and cognition.  It is important to see if the effects observed in childhood persist into adulthood.  Future studies will need to confirm these findings in other populations and determine if these and other behaviors are impacted by PCE exposure.

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