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Environmental Factor, March 2012

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SRP researcher links contaminants in drinking water to mental illness

By Rebecca Wilson

Ann Aschengrau, Sc.D.

An earlier study by Aschengrau (see story) linked PCE exposure and birth defects. (Photo courtesy of Boston University)

The solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is known to cause mood and anxiety disorders in adults, but a new study from the Boston University Superfund Research Program (SRP) shows that childhood exposure may also lead to mental health problems in adulthood. Ann Aschengrau, Sc.D., published findings that link early childhood exposure to PCE-contaminated water to increased risk of psychological disorders later in life. The NIEHS-funded study appeared Jan. 20 in the journal Environmental Health.

Aschengrau conducted a retrospective epidemiological study of 1,500 exposed and unexposed individuals, and found that those with prenatal and early childhood exposure to PCE were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder compared to the unexposed group.

Findings with a Cape Cod cohort

Study participants lived in and around Cape Cod, Mass., between 1968 and the 1980s. Subjects in the exposed group lived in homes where water was supplied by vinyl-lined municipal pipes that were found to be leaking PCE into the drinking water supply. Pipes were flushed in the 1980s to correct the problem. Participants in the unexposed group lived in the area at the same time, but their water was not supplied by the contaminated lines. 

Aschengrau said of the exposures, “While it is impossible to calculate exactly the amount of PCE people were exposed to, some recorded levels were as high as 1,550 times the currently recommended safe limit.” She found that while the incidence of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder increased with any level of exposure, the highest rates of incidence were among those who had the highest estimated exposures.

Participants completed questionnaires, reporting on whether or not they had experienced symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive disorder. They were also asked whether or not a health care provider had ever said they had the illness and, if so, when that diagnosis occurred.

According to the study, many adults are exposed to PCE in the dry cleaning and textile industries. The solvent is also used as a metal degreaser and can be found in the automotive industry. It is a neurotoxin known to cause mood changes, anxiety, and depressive disorders in people who are exposed through their occupations. Interestingly, Aschengrau reported that she found no association between PCE exposure and depression.

Citation: Aschengrau A, Weinberg JM, Janulewicz PA, Romano ME, Gallagher LG, Winter MR, Martin BR, Vieira VM, Webster TF, White RF, Ozonoff DM. 2012. Occurrence of mental illness following prenatal and early childhood exposure to tetrachloroethylene (PCE)-contaminated drinking water: a retrospective cohort study. Environ Health 11(1):2. Summary

(Rebecca Wilson is an environmental health information specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

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