Pregnant women exposed to arsenic more likely to have kids prone to infection

By @iamkarlatecson on
Tap water
Water flows from a tap in Kiev September 10, 2012. Reuters/Gleb Garanich

Children born to women who were exposed to higher levels of arsenic during pregnancy have a greater risk of infections and respiratory symptoms within their first year of life, a new research shows. 

The study, led by researchers from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, found that infants who were exposed to arsenic in utero had greater numbers of infections that resulted in a doctor visit or treatment with prescription medication. Their investigation, done in collaboration with colleagues from Harvard and Stanford, appeared in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives,

Arsenic has been linked to disrupted immune function and greater infection susceptibility in highly exposed populations. Well water is pointed as the primary source of arsenic for most people, and since private wells are not regulated, some households may not be aware they have high arsenic in their water. In New Hampshire, where the study was conducted, nearly 10 to 15 per cent of private wells contain arsenic levels above the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For their study, the team measured arsenic levels in the urine of more than 400 pregnant women who use private wells as their water source to estimate the amount of arsenic that they are exposed to. After each child was born, the researchers conducted a telephone survey every four months to assess the number and severity of infections and symptoms that the child experienced in the first year of life. 

They found that infants exposed to higher levels of arsenic in utero tended to have more upper and lower respiratory tract infections as well as respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing, that warranted treatment, according to lead author Shohreh Farzan, a research scientist at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

“These results suggest that arsenic exposure may increase the risk and severity of certain types of infections,” said senior author Margaret Karagas, a professor and chair of epidemiology at Geisel. “Respiratory infections and symptoms during infancy could signal a greater risk of later life atopy or respiratory impairment.”

Atopy is referred to as the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases.

The Dartmouth-led study supports an earlier research published in Environmental Health, which linked arsenic-related increases in respiratory infections among children in Bangladesh, where children tend to be exposed to much higher levels of arsenic. 

While certain food items, such as rice and rice products, can also contain arsenic, Dartmouth researchers recommend that all households using a private well test their water for arsenic to avoid its harmful effects.

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