When Deidre Ramos moved with her infant son to the Parker Street section of New Bedford, Mass., little did she know that her new neighborhood was toxic.
Today, a decade later, Ramos is worried about the health of her two sons growing up in a community contaminated by an old burn dump containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
“What will be the long-term effects on my children?” asked Ramos.
Now new research conducted in New Bedford suggests that these industrial chemicals, which were first linked to learning problems in children more than two decades ago, may play a role in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), too.
Boys who were exposed to higher levels of PCBs in the womb scored lower on focus and concentration tests, which indicates that they are more likely to have attention problems often related to ADHD, according to a newly published study of New Bedford area children.
All of the children studied were born to mothers who lived near the contaminated harbor and dumpsites in these low-income communities, where twice as many people live below the poverty line than the Massachusetts average. But experts say that their exposure levels were fairly low, comparable to people's levels throughout much of the United States, which means that a connection between PCBs and attention problems in boys could exist in other communities, too.
Banned in the United States more than 30 years ago, PCBs are long-lived industrial chemicals that accumulate in food chains. Nearly every U.S. resident still has detectable levels in his or her blood. PCBs have the ability to disrupt hormones, which can alter how the brain develops.
“These findings contribute to a growing literature showing associations between PCBs and ADHD-related behavior,” the scientists from Boston University, Harvard University and two other institutions wrote in the study, which was published in late February.
In the study, umbilical cord was collected from 788 newborns from four towns near New Bedford Harbor to see what they were exposed to in the womb. They were born between 1993 and 1998.
Blood from the umbilical cord “is one of the best measures of contaminants being transferred from mother to fetus,” said Sharon Sagiv, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist who now works at Boston University.
Roughly eight years after they were born, almost 600 of these children underwent two tests. One measured their ability to zero in on and react to a specific target – in this case, the image of a cat on a computer screen -- and to inhibit their response to another animal's image. The other exam included parts of an IQ test that measured their processing speed and distractability, which tests whether they can maintain attention over time.
“It’s like playing whack-a-mole versus watching a radar monitor,” said Paul Eubig, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Eubig, who studies effects in lab animals, was not involved in the study but co-authored a published report linking PCBs with changes related to ADHD.
Boys exposed to the highest levels of PCBs during their mother’s pregnancy failed to press a button for the on-screen cat 12 percent more often than children exposed to the lowest levels, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Those same boys also scored slightly lower in the other test.
The same link was not found in girls. Animal data suggest that hormone-disrupting chemicals including PCBs affect each gender differently, but the connection in humans remains unclear.