Polevoy C, Arbuckle TE, Oulhote Y, Lanphear BP, Cockell K, Muckle G, Saint-Amour D. Environmental Health 2020 Feb 7;19(1):14. doi: 10.1186/s12940-020-0567-2
Prenatal exposure to environmental contaminants can have deleterious effects on child development. While psychomotor, cognitive and behavioural outcomes have been investigated in relation to chronic exposure, the associations with visual functions remains unclear. The present study’s aim was to assess the associations of prenatal exposure to legacy persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals with visual acuity in Canadian infants. The potential protective effects of selenium against mercury toxicity were also examined.
Participants (mean corrected age = 6.6 months) were part of the Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) study. Concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), lead and mercury were measured in maternal blood during pregnancy, as well as in the cord blood. The Teller acuity card test (TAC) (n = 429) and the visual evoked potentials in a sub-group (n = 63) were used to estimate behavioural and electrophysiological visual acuity, respectively. Multivariable linear regression models were used to investigate the relationship between exposure to each contaminant and visual acuity measures, while controlling for potential confounders. Breastmilk selenium, which was available for about half of the TAC and VEP samples, was also taken into account in the mercury models as exploratory analyses.
We observed no significant associations between exposure to any contaminants and TAC. Analyses revealed a negative trend (p values < 0.1) between cord blood lead and mercury and electrophysiological visual acuity, whereas PCB and PBDE showed no association. When adding breastmilk selenium concentration to the mercury models, this association became statistically significant for cord concentrations (β = − 3.41, 95% CI = − 5.96,-0.86), but also for blood levels at 1st and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy (β = − 3.29, 95% CI = − 5.69,-0.88). However, further regression models suggested that this change in estimates might not be due to adjustment for selenium, but instead to a change in the study sample.
Our results suggest that subtle, but detectable alterations of infant electrophysiological visual acuity can be identified in a population prenatally exposed to low mercury concentrations. Compared to behavioural visual acuity testing, electrophysiological assessment may more sensitive in detecting visual neurotoxicity in relation with prenatal exposure to mercury.