A new study conducted jointly by University of California, Berkeley, and Chilean researchers says that children who are exposed to high levels of arsenic in drinking water are more likely to succumb to lung cancer or fall a victim to other lung diseases later in their adult life.
It was found that the risk of dying from bronchiectasis was 46 times more than normal if the child's mother also drank the arsenic-contaminated water during her pregnancy. "The extraordinary risk we found for in utero and early childhood exposure is a new scientific finding," said the study's lead author, Allan Smith, professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. "I sometimes ponder the improbability that drinking water with concentrations of arsenic less than one-thousandth of a gram per liter could do this, and think that I've got to be wrong. But our years of working with arsenic exposure in India and Chile tie in with this study perfectly." Arsenic is classified as a semi-metal and has been linked to more forms of cancer than any other element known to man. It is responsible for increasing the risk for skin cancer, bladder cancer and lung cancer. In previous studies conducted in India, Dr Smith had found the association of arsenic with bronchiectasis, which is a rare lung disease that causes distortion and dilation of the bronchi thus compromising the health and leading to chronic infections. In the current study, Smith decided to examine the death certificate of young adults in the Chilean cities of Antofagasta and neighboring Mejillones, which had been supplying arsenic laden drinking water to their populations since 1958 before the installation of an arsenic removing plant in 1971 reduced this threat. It was found that in the intervening period the death rate from lung cancer in children exposed to arsenic in the water was 7 times greater than in the rest of Chile. The risk of death from bronchiectasis was 46 times greater. "In all my career, these are the most amazing findings I've confronted so far," Smith said. "Their magnitude is unparalleled. Not only are these the highest death rates for lung cancer and bronchiectasis ever discovered among young adults, but they are also the strongest evidence I know of to date that implicates not just arsenic, but any environmental exposure in utero or in early childhood to any adverse health effect in adults."
The details of the study will appear in the July print issue of Environmental Health Perspectives and will be posted on its Web site on March 27.
Contact: Liese Greensfelder
University of California - Berkeley