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UC Berkeley study finds in utero arsenic exposure tied to lung disease and cancer in adults

Berkeley -- Children who are exposed to high levels of arsenic in their drinking water are seven to 12 times more likely to die of lung cancer and other lung diseases in young adulthood, a new study by University of California, Berkeley, and Chilean researchers suggests.

The risk of dying due to bronchiectasis, usually a rare lung disease, is 46 times higher than normal if the child's mother also drank the arsenic-contaminated water while pregnant, according to the study. These findings provide some of the first human evidence that fetal or early childhood exposure to any toxic substance can result in markedly increased disease rates in adults.

"The extraordinary risk we found for in utero and early childhood exposure is a new scientific finding," says the study's lead author, Allan Smith, professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. "I sometimes ponder the improbability that drinking water with concentrations of arsenic less than one-thousandth of a gram per liter could do this, and think that I've got to be wrong. But our years of working with arsenic exposure in India and Chile tie in with this study perfectly."

The paper will appear in the July print issue of Environmental Health Perspectives and will be posted on its Web site today, Monday, March 27.

Classified as a semi-metal, the element arsenic is one of the most potent cancer-causing agents known. Skin, bladder and lung cancer rates are substantially higher in regions where the tasteless, colorless substance occurs in drinking water. A recent study by Smith showed that adults exposed to arsenic can also develop decreased lung function similar to that experienced by cigarette smokers. And, in a paper to be published on April 1 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Smith and his colleagues provide evidence that women exposed to high concentrations of arsenic during pregnancy experience six-fold increases in stillbirths and other adverse effects.

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Contact: Liese Greensfelder
lieseg@berkeley.edu
530-643-7741
University of California - Berkeley
27-Mar-2006


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