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Modeled exposure to tetrachloroethylene-contaminated drinking water and the occurrence of birth defects: a case-control study from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.



Residents of Massachusetts and Rhode Island were exposed to tetrachloroethylene-contaminated drinking water from 1968 through the early 1990s when it leached from the vinyl lining of asbestos cement water distribution pipes. While occupational exposure to solvents during pregnancy has consistently been linked to an increased risk of certain birth defects, mixed results have been observed for environmental sources of exposure, including contaminated drinking water. The present case-control study was undertaken to examine further the association between prenatal exposure to tetrachloroethylene-contaminated drinking water and the risk of central nervous system defects, oral clefts and hypospadias.


Cases were comprised of live- and stillborn infants delivered between 1968 and 1995 to mothers who resided in 28 Massachusetts and Rhode Island cities and towns with some PCE-contaminated water supplies. Infants with central nervous system defects (N = 268), oral clefts (N = 112) and hypospadias (N = 94) were included. Controls were randomly selected live-born, non-malformed infants who were delivered during the same period and geographic area as cases (N = 771). Vital records and self-administered questionnaires were used to gather identifying information, birth defect diagnoses, and other relevant data. PCE exposure during the first trimester was estimated using water distribution system modeling software that incorporated a leaching and transport model. Prenatal PCE exposure was dichotomized as "high" or "low" exposure at the level corresponding to an estimated average concentration of 40 μg/L, the criterion for remediation when PCE contamination was discovered in 1980.


Mothers with "high" levels of exposure to PCE-contaminated drinking water during the first trimester (> 40 μg/L) had increased odds of having a child with spina bifida (OR: 2.0, 95% CI: 0.8-5.4), cleft lip with or without cleft palate (OR: 3.8, 95% CI: 1.2-12.3) and hypospadias (OR: 2.1, 95% CI:0.5-8.3). No increases in the odds of other defects were observed in relation to "high" exposure levels.


The results of the present study suggest that mothers with "high" PCE exposure levels during the first trimester have increased odds of having a child with spina bifida, cleft lip with or without cleft palate, and hypospadias. These findings support several prior studies that observed an increased risk of selected birth defects following prenatal exposure to solvents in occupational and environmental settings. Even though PCE contamination from vinyl lined pipes was remediated many years ago, it remains a widespread contaminant across the U.S and so environmental regulations must be guided by a precautionary perspective that safeguards pregnant women and their offspring.

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