Babies exposed to high levels of arsenic in the womb are at increased risk for infections and respiratory symptoms in their first year of life, a new study suggests.
Researchers measured levels of arsenic in 412 pregnant women in New Hampshire whose homes had private wells. For a year after their babies were born, the women were surveyed every four months about the number and severity of their children’s infections and respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing.
Infants exposed to arsenic in the womb had more infections that led to a doctor visit or treatment with prescription medications, the investigators found. In addition, those exposed to higher levels of arsenic in the womb tended to have more upper and lower respiratory tract infections, as well as respiratory symptoms.
The study was published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
“These results suggest that arsenic exposure may increase the risk and severity of certain types of infections,” senior author Margaret Karagas, chair of epidemiology at Dartmouth College’s School of Medicine in Hanover, N.H., said in a college news release.
“Respiratory infections and symptoms during infancy could signal a greater risk of later life atopy (the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases) or respiratory impairment,” she added.
Previous research has linked high levels of arsenic exposure to immune system disruption and greater susceptibility to infection. Well water is the main source of arsenic for most people, and nearly 10 percent to 15 percent of private wells in New Hampshire have arsenic levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limit.
All households with a private well should have their water tested for arsenic, the study authors recommended.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more about arsenic in drinking water.