Determining how mother’s exposure to toxins during pregnancy impacts baby’s health

Dr. Rebeccca Fry, with graduate student Alison Sanders and Bhavesh Ahir, Post Doctoral Research Associate

Dr. Rebeccca Fry, with graduate student Alison Sanders and Bhavesh Ahir, Post Doctoral Research Associate

A research study led by UNC SRP researcher Rebecca Fry tested blood samples from more than 200 pregnant women in North Carolina for arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. What the research team found was disconcerting: As reported in a March 2012 journal article, more than 57% of the samples were detectable for at least one of these toxic metals, some at levels beyond acceptable limits set by the EPA. The investigators also found trends based on where the women live, suggesting that environment may be a factor in the levels of exposure.

“We are trying to address a gap in public health,” says Fry, a UNC assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering. “While we know that prenatal exposure to metals is harmful, there are no monitoring systems in place to determine whether women – and therefore their unborn babies – are likely exposed. This study was a first step toward closing that gap and increasing awareness of environmental toxicants during pregnancy.”

Fry’s lab is now studying prenatal exposure to cadmium and subsequent health effects in children in North Carolina. This five-year study, funded by the SRP, is a collaboration with the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at Duke University, which is following nearly 2,000 Durham County mothers and babies. Using blood samples taken at birth, the UNC-Duke team is studying the epigenetic effects of prenatal metal exposure.

Early findings indicate that cadmium is present during pregnancy in many of these Durham women, and that there are epigenetic changes in the newborns that are associated with that prenatal exposure. It is too early to say whether the changes have functional or long-term consequences, Fry cautions; that will require follow-up over time.

Cadmium, a naturally occurring human carcinogen, is found at many Superfund sites. While the subjects in this study do not necessarily live near a site, the outcomes and insights will definitely be applicable to citizens in those areas, Fry notes.