Lead exposure in mothers can affect future generations

Oct 16, 2015

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By Wayne State University – Office of the Vice President for Research

A team of researchers at Wayne State University have discovered that mothers with high levels of lead in their blood not only affect the fetal cells of their unborn children, but also their grandchildren. Their study, Multigenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans: DNA methylation changes associated with maternal exposure to lead can be transmitted to the grandchildren, was published online this week in Scientific Reports.

It’s a known fact that babies in the womb can be affected by low levels of lead exposure. If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, the lead passes through the placenta into the baby’s developing bones and other organs. Pregnant women with a past exposure to lead can also affect the unborn child’s brain, causing developmental problems later in life. Previous research studies have suggested that exposure to heavy metal toxicants can influence a person’s global DNA methylation profile.

In the recent Wayne State study led by Douglas Ruden, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, director of epigenomics, and program leader in the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors, he and his research team revealed that lead exposure can cause specific changes in DNA methylation, which can be detected in dried blood spots beyond one generation. The neonatal blood spots from both the mothers and children in this study were obtained from the Michigan Neonatal Biobank, a unique resource that has most of the neonatal dried blood spots from children born in Michigan since 1984.

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3 comments on “Lead exposure in mothers can affect future generations

  • In Australia, we have two large lead mining cities. The cities have lead dust pollution all over the suburbs. Research has found that there is a direct correlation between the results of NAPLAN school periodic tests, and the level of lead contamination in the soil of the house the child lives in.

    A new study has found there is a link between the academic performance of primary school students in mining towns and their exposure to environmental contamination.

    The study focused on Broken Hill in remote New South Wales where students who performed poorly in the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) were found to either live or attend school in areas with high amounts of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in the soil and air.

    In contrast, students from districts with comparatively low levels of heavy metals in the environment scored better grades, according to Mark Taylor, a professor of environmental science at Sydney’s Macquarie University.


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  • David R Allen
    Oct 16, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    .In Australia, we have two large lead mining cities. The cities have lead dust pollution all over the suburbs. Research has found that there is a direct correlation between the results of NAPLAN school periodic tests, and the level of lead contamination in the soil of the house the child lives in.

    Lead poisoning in industrialised countries is not new!


    Indeed, the Romans used so much lead in their homes and kitchens that they must have suffered from its toxic effects. The archaeological evidence, in the form of bone analysis, supports this. Bone is very good at trapping lead that enters the body.

    The Roman ruling classes were most at risk from lead poisoning because they relied on lead for many everyday items such as pewter, paint, pans and pipes, that the less wealthy could not afford. In 1965, in the Journal of Occupational Medicine, S. C. Gilfillan of Santa Monica, California, first put forward the idea that lead was a significant factor in the fall of the Roman Empire.

    The Romans boiled down grape syrup, known as sapa, or boiled down the juice of other fruits, known as defrutum, in lead pans. The pans had to be made of lead to make the food very sweet. The acids in the wine reacted with the lead to produce soluble lead salts, such as lead acetate, which is as sweet as sugar. The common name for lead acetate in fact was ‘sugar of lead’.

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  • i heard a radio interview about this (Australia ABC radio about 2 or 3 weeks back). Owing to prevailing wind direction some houses in mineral mining towns (those on the wrong side of the tracks) were experiencing every surface indoors and out being continually coated with metals-containing dust. So that everything touched or eaten or drunk from was laced with lead. Lead consumption continuing over many years.

    I’ve always wondered about the lead traces in paint used in housing. In New Zealand most houses are (or were) constructed with timber weatherboards which need to be painted roughly every 10 years. Lead being a key ingredient in the paint. There are many houses around that were constructed 50 to 100 years ago when lead was normally used. When I purchased my first house in the early 1980s the mortgage contract with the bank required the house be maintained (in those days the house structure was typically worth more than the land) including repainting every 5 years. Lead was an important ingredient in older generation paints and after a sufficiently thick accumulation of paint over the decades the exterior of older houses had to be stripped, usually via scraper and blow torch flame, before repainting. Lead-containing paint flakes accumulated in the flower and garden beds surrounding the walls of the houses. I remember this thing happening when my father repainted our house when I was very small, and then again during repainting years later when my younger brothers were crawling babies and eating the same dirt and paint flakes.

    Lower income house occupants typically ended up living in the oldest homes. Typically at a stage in life when there are very young children and babies around. Babies typically eat the dirt in the gardens around the houses. (Same also applies to the asbestos that was widely employed in older home construction.) There’s a theory that babies which don’t get to eat enough dirt can develop immune disorders leading to subsequent allergies. Similar to babies and young children who are chronically exposed to anti-biotics. They don’t get the microbes exposure that contributes to a diverse gut biota. Toxins like lead may have a similar impact. i.e. on gut biota not just internal toxic impact directly on organs and nerve cells.

    Many decades later it was noticed that NZ children from poorer households tended to perform relatively worse in schools. The cause was established as a consequence of poorer kids having less access to books in their homes. Rich kids had plenty of books around home, poor kids didn’t. The problem was addressed by providing free books to poorer kids. Some kind of invisible ray emanating from books apparently affecting neuron growth depending on proximity to the books. Possibly also the physical exercise from handling the books contributing to neural growth stimulation. The mechanism was never identified and interest diminished after the policy proved ineffective. Things have since moved on to playing Mozart tapes to babies, and more recently to fish oil supplements. Perhaps now that lead is disappearing then so to is the effect to be explained.

    Lead in petrol was another issue, kids exposed to major roads tending to accumulate lead in the blood. Or so they say. Though I’ve since heard that the newer technology petrol additives may actually be more biologically harmful that the lead they replace in petrol. Similar to the saturated vs unsaturated fats in deep fried junk food. Saturated fats being safer as they are less prone to becoming trans-fats via heat exposure, and which can’t be as easily processed metabolically.

    I think that when I was a small child in the 1960s there were also lots of toys (made in Japan, China etc.) that were make of materials containing lead. They were ideal to chew on – quite tasty from memory. This problem may be resurfacing many decades on owing to unregulated imports from China. And I recall a friend who got a job in a car battery factory as a teenager. He was granted an entire year off work on full pay in order to get the lead readings in his blood samples back down to ‘normal’ limits. I remember thinking how lucky he was.

    Interesting that these effects can pass through the generations. Wealthy families pretty much escaping entirely: because they tend to live in newer houses, can afford more expensive children’s toys, don’t live near busy roads etc. Obviously the cure is for everyone to be encouraged to get rich. With the new Australian PM leading the way forward. And as the former treasurer of Australia recently said: all you have to do is to get a high paying job. Say in the political elite somewhere. On the other hand things like pollution control regulations and environmental policies can only hinder industry, impede jobs and GDP growth, and prevent the accumulation of wealth that solves all such problems. Turns out the solution may actually lie with the pollution controls.

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