An epidemic may have gone unnoticed--DDT use in US linked to premature births in the 1960's

The study, which appears in the current issue of the international medical journal Lancet, was carried out by scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The scientists said they found elevated levels of DDT's breakdown product, DDE, in the stored blood of mothers recorded as giving birth to premature or low birth weight infants. Pre-term births are a major contributor to infant mortality.

"DDT levels in the U.S. are now low and likely not causing any harm," said Matthew Longnecker, M.D., Sc.D., NIEHS, lead author on the study. "But we have to be concerned about what might be happening in those 25 countries where DDT is still used. Also, looking back on earlier decades in the U.S., we may have had an epidemic of pre-term births that we are just now discovering."

The U.S. Collaborative Perinatal Project, a program of the National Institutes of Health and 12 universities, still has stored blood serum from the mothers of thousands of children born between 1959 and 1966. A sample group of 2,380 was studied. Of these women's births, 361 were born pre-term, and 221 were small for gestational age; that is, they weighed less than most infants their age. Mothers of the affected infants had higher levels of DDE in their blood, indicating higher exposure to DDT in the environment. Average levels were about five times higher than at present.

DDT has long been suspected of reproductive toxicity. It was identified by Rachel Carson as being a potent reproductive toxin in birds in her pioneering environmental book Silent Spring published in 1962. The book forecast a time when DDT and other persistent pesticides used at that time could produce a spring where there were no birds left to sing. In fact

Contact: Ruth McFarland
NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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