New research shows that exposure to PCBs may result in some immune consequences for babies. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals and researchers recently found that babies exposed to higher PCB levels during gestation and as newborns were born with a smaller immune organ – the thymus. At 6 months of age these babies still had a smaller organ. By 13 months, differences in immune organ sizes were no longer seen. The thymus is responsible for proper T-cells development and problems with the thymus can result in immune system dysfunction. For a baby, who already has a less efficient immune system, this is a problem. PCB exposure has also been linked to cancer, poor neurological development in children and reproduction problems. Now, what’s unique about this study is that PCBs are banned in the U.S. They’re no longer manufactured or even widely used, so how are mamas and babies being exposed?

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Image by Pedronet via Flickr

Although PCBs are no longer used, people are still at risk due to various routes of exposure. For pregnant women the most likely exposure route is food. PCBs often show up in high concentrations in fish who live in water that’s been contaminated with just low levels of PCBs. Wisconsin Department of Health Services notes that predator fish at the top of the food chain, as well as bottom feeding fish, pose the highest risk. If you’re pregnant, planning to become pregnant, nursing or a young child, you should avoid sport-caught fish from waters contaminated with PCBs. You can easily avoid contaminated fish by paying attention to your local fish consumption advisory. You can also avoid PCB exposure by not letting your child play in soil located near a hazardous waste facility, which really, seems like good common sense no matter what. Plus stay clear of older fluorescent lights found in schools, offices, and homes, as they may still contain transformers or ballasts that contain PCBs.

+ Pre- and Postnatal Polychlorinated Biphenyl Concentrations and Longitudinal Measures of Thymus Volume in Infants

Lead image by Flickr User d:space