, Volume 84, Issue 6, pp 591-600,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Lung function in adults following in utero and childhood exposure to arsenic in drinking water: preliminary findings

Abstract

Purpose

Evidence suggests that arsenic in drinking water causes non-malignant lung disease, but nearly all data concern exposed adults. The desert city of Antofagasta (population 257,976) in northern Chile had high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water (>800 μg/l) from 1958 until 1970, when a new treatment plant was installed. This scenario, with its large population, distinct period of high exposure, and accurate data on past exposure, is virtually unprecedented in environmental epidemiology. We conducted a pilot study on early-life arsenic exposure and long-term lung function. We present these preliminary findings because of the magnitude of the effects observed.

Methods

We recruited a convenience sample consisting primarily of nursing school employees in Antofagasta and Arica, a city with low drinking water arsenic. Lung function and respiratory symptoms in 32 adults exposed to >800 μg/l arsenic before age 10 were compared to 65 adults without high early-life exposure.

Results

Early-life arsenic exposure was associated with 11.5% lower forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) (P = 0.04), 12.2% lower forced vital capacity (FVC) (P = 0.04), and increased breathlessness (prevalence odds ratio = 5.94, 95% confidence interval 1.36–26.0). Exposure–response relationships between early-life arsenic concentration and adult FEV1 and FVC were also identified (P trend = 0.03).

Conclusions

Early-life exposure to arsenic in drinking water may have irreversible respiratory effects of a magnitude similar to smoking throughout adulthood. Given the small study size and non-random recruitment methods, further research is needed to confirm these findings.