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DDT’s Toxic Legacy Can Harm Granddaughters of Women Exposed, Study Shows

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, new research from PHI's Child Health and Development Studies finds that granddaughters of women who were exposed to DDT during pregnancy may also suffer from significant health threats: Higher rates of obesity and menstrual periods that start before age 11. Both factors may put these young women at greater risk of breast cancer — as well as high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases.

  • Los Angeles Times

When Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” first sounded the alarm on DDT and its devastating effects on birds and fish, our understanding of how this pesticide affected humans was just beginning. Chemicals can take years to reveal their insidious power, and so for decades, scientists have been piecing together — study by study — the reasons why DDT still haunts us today.

First it was breast cancer in women who were exposed to this hormone-disrupting chemical in the 1950s and ‘60s. Then their daughters, who had been exposed in the womb. Researchers over the years have also linked DDT exposure to obesity, birth defects, reduced fertility and testicular cancer in sons.

Now, a team of toxicologists, molecular biologists and epidemiologists at UC Davis and the Public Health Institute in Oakland have confirmed for the first time that granddaughters of women who were exposed to DDT during pregnancy also suffer from significant health threats: Higher rates of obesity and menstrual periods that start before age 11.

Both factors, scientists say, may put these young women at greater risk of breast cancer — as well as high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases.

“This is further evidence that not only is a pregnant woman and her baby vulnerable to the chemicals that she’s exposed to — but so is her future grandchild,” said Barbara Cohn, director of the Public Health Institute’s Child Health and Development Studies, a multigenerational research project in California that has followed more than 15,000 pregnant women and their families since 1959.

This persistent, generational exposure is likely related to the reproductive system, Cohn said. Since a female is born with all her eggs, a granddaughter is technically also exposed to DDT if her mother was exposed in the womb.

Barbara Cohn
This is something that people had always thought was possible, but there had never been a human study to support the existence of that link. Even though we banned that stuff more than 40 years ago, people now walking the Earth — the granddaughters of those who were pregnant — were exposed. Dr. Barbara Cohn, program director, Child Health and Development Studies

More than 60 years ago, in the heyday of DDT, a team of scientists had the foresight to start collecting blood samples from more than 15,000 pregnant women at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland. At every trimester and also shortly after birth, each woman provided a sample that was studied and carefully archived.

Researchers tested the blood for DDT and its related contaminants, and continued to follow up on health assessments. They kept in touch with the women’s daughters, who had been exposed to DDT in the womb, and then with their granddaughters.

They found, after years of research, that women heavily exposed to DDT during childhood are five times as likely to develop breast cancer, and that a mother’s DDT exposure during pregnancy, or immediately after birth, is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer for their daughter. Their daughters are also more likely to experience delays in getting pregnant.

In this most recent study, published Wednesday in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the research team found that the risk of obesity in the granddaughters — who are now in their 20s and 30s — was two to three times greater than women whose grandmothers had little DDT in their blood during pregnancy. These granddaughters were also twice as likely to have much earlier menstrual periods — another indicator of increased health risks later in life.

This persistent, generational exposure is likely related to the reproductive system, Cohn said. Since a female is born with all her eggs, a granddaughter is technically also exposed to DDT if her mother was exposed in the womb.

Akilah Shahid said she was shocked, yet fascinated, to learn that she was in the third generation of a major study on how chemicals in the environment could be affecting women.

A biology major at Mills College, Shahid said it all clicked for her for when she dug into the research. Her family has been no stranger to health problems. Her grandmother alone has fought cancer three times.

“I feel like, for a while, cancer just came out of nowhere,” she said. “You don’t know who’s going to get it, and now we have a reason why.”

Shahid, now 30, exercises a lot. She tries to eat well. It empowers her to know that her weight isn’t completely her fault — and that there’s only so much within her control.

DDT isn’t allowed anymore, but she can’t help but wonder about all the other chemicals still prevalent today — bisphenol A (BPA), per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other manufactured compounds that don’t seem to ever go away. She avoids plastic water bottles and tries to be mindful of how her choices and actions right now could expose her future grandchildren to some unknown disease.

How many times have we talked about climate change and things that we need to do better for our children and grandchildren? This is more proof that hello, what we do today is going to affect people way forward. I hope this is a wake-up call for a lot of people, because we’re talking about saving the environment again, today, for our future generations. Akilah Shahid

The findings come at a time of renewed public interest in DDT, a problem that had been largely tucked into a fading chapter of history. Concerns have intensified since The Times reported last fall that the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT once dumped as many as half a million barrels of its waste into the deep ocean.

See more media coverage of the study:
Greenwire (subscription required)
Spektrum (in German)
Click the image below to see a brief video and coverage from The Hill.

Originally published by Los Angeles Times


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