Recent developments in molecular epidemiology: A study of the effects of environmental polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on birth outcomes in Poland.

The authors briefly review the current potential and limitations of molecular epidemiology. This approach uses biomarkers to measure the internal and bioeffective dose of toxicants, early biologic effects likely to be predictive of cancer, and variations in individual susceptibility. The most frequent application of biomarkers has been in assessment of exposure/dose and susceptibility due to genetic and nongenetic factors. More research is needed to establish the predictive significance of biomarkers in terms of disease risk. To illustrate that molecular epidemiology has potential in identifying etiologic factors in disease, this article presents data from a recent study of the developmental effects of fetal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) via ambient pollution. The study was carried out in an industrialized area of Poland with relatively high levels of PAH pollution from coal burning. PAH-DNA adducts in leukocytes and plasma cotinine were measured in umbilical cord blood as dosimeters of transplacental PAH and cigarette smoke, respectively. The study subjects were 70 newborns from the industrialized city of Krakow and 90 newborns from Limanowa, a rural town with far greater use of coal for home heating. Newborns whose levels of PAH-DNA adducts were above the median (3.85/10[8] nucleotides) had a significantly decreased birth length, weight, and head circumference. Cotinine was significantly inversely associated with birth weight and length. Although preliminary, these results provide a new molecular link between PAH exposure and developmental effects, generating initial data and hypotheses for further study.

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