Neonatal hypothyroidism has been associated in animal models with maternal exposure to several environmental contaminants; however, evidence for such an association in humans is inconsistent. We evaluated whether maternal exposure to 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), a persistent and widespread toxic environmental contaminant, is associated with modified neonatal thyroid function in a large, highly exposed population in Seveso, Italy.
Methods and Findings
Between 1994 and 2005, in individuals exposed to TCDD after the 1976 Seveso accident we conducted: (i) a residence-based population study on 1,014 children born to the 1,772 women of reproductive age in the most contaminated zones (A, very high contamination; B, high contamination), and 1,772 age-matched women from the surrounding noncontaminated area (reference); (ii) a biomarker study on 51 mother–child pairs for whom recent maternal plasma dioxin measurements were available. Neonatal blood thyroid-stimulating hormone (b-TSH) was measured on all children. We performed crude and multivariate analyses adjusting for gender, birth weight, birth order, maternal age, hospital, and type of delivery. Mean neonatal b-TSH was 0.98 μU/ml (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.90–1.08) in the reference area (n = 533), 1.35 μU/ml (95% CI 1.22–1.49) in zone B (n = 425), and 1.66 μU/ml (95% CI 1.19–2.31) in zone A (n = 56) (p < 0.001). The proportion of children with b-TSH > 5 μU/ml was 2.8% in the reference area, 4.9% in zone B, and 16.1% in zone A (p < 0.001). Neonatal b-TSH was correlated with current maternal plasma TCDD (n = 51, β = 0.47, p < 0.001) and plasma toxic equivalents of coplanar dioxin-like compounds (n = 51, β = 0.45, p = 0.005).
Our data indicate that environmental contaminants such as dioxins have a long-lasting capability to modify neonatal thyroid function after the initial exposure.
Andrea Baccarelli and colleagues show that maternal exposure to a dioxin following the industrial accident in Seveso, Italy in 1976 is associated with modified neonatal thyroid function even many years later.
The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, controls the speed at which the human body converts food into the energy and chemicals needed for life. In healthy people, the thyroid makes and releases two hormones (chemical messengers that travel around the body and regulate the activity of specific cells) called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The release of T4 and T3 is controlled by thyroid secreting hormone (TSH), which is made by the pituitary gland in response to electrical messages from the brain. If the thyroid stops making enough T4 and T3, a condition called hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) develops. Adults with hypothyroidism put on weight, feel the cold, and are often tired; children with hypothyroidism may also have poor growth and mental development. Because even a small reduction in thyroid hormone levels increases TSH production by the pituitary, hypothyroidism is often diagnosed by measuring the amount of TSH in the blood; it is treated with daily doses of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although hypothyroidism is most common in ageing women, newborn babies sometimes have hypothyroidism. If untreated, “neonatal” hyperthyroidism can cause severe mental and physical retardation so, in many countries, blood TSH levels are measured soon after birth. That way, levothyroxine treatment can be started before thyroid hormone deficiency permanently damages the baby's developing body and brain. But what causes neonatal hypothyroidism? Animal experiments (and some but not all studies in people) suggest that maternal exposure to toxic chemicals called dioxins may be one cause. Dioxins are byproducts of waste incineration that persist in the environment and that accumulate in people. In this study, the researchers investigate whether exposure to dioxin (this name refers to the most toxic of the dioxins—2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) affects neonatal thyroid function by studying children born near Seveso, Italy between 1994 and 2005. An accident at a chemical factory in 1976 heavily contaminated the region around this town with dioxin and, even now, the local people have high amounts of dioxin in their bodies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 1,772 women of child-bearing age who were living very near the Seveso factory (the most highly contaminated area, zone A) or slightly further away where the contamination was less but still high (zone B) at the time of the accident or soon after. As controls, they selected 1,772 women living in the surrounding, noncontaminated (reference) area. Altogether, these women had 1,014 babies between 1994 and 2005. The babies born to the mothers living in the reference area had lower neonatal blood TSH levels on average than the babies born to mothers living in zone A; zone B babies had intermediate TSH levels. Zone A babies were 6.6. times more likely to have a TSH level of more than 5 μU/ml than the reference area babies (the threshold TSH level for further investigations is 10 μU/ml; the average TSH level among the reference area babies was 0.98 μU/ml). The researchers also examined the relationship between neonatal TSH measurements and maternal dioxin measurements at delivery (extrapolated from measurements made between 1992 and 1998) in 51 mother–baby pairs. Neonatal TSH levels were highest in the babies whose mothers had the highest blood dioxin levels.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that maternal dioxin exposure has a long-lasting, deleterious effect on neonatal thyroid function. Because the long-term progress of the children in this study was not examined, it is not known whether the increases in neonatal TSH measurements associated with dioxin exposure caused any developmental problems. However, in regions where there is a mild iodine deficiency (the only environmental exposure consistently associated with reduced human neonatal thyroid function), TSH levels are increased to a similar extent and there is evidence of reduced intellectual and physical development. Future investigations on the progress of this group of children should show whether the long-term legacy of the Seveso accident (and of the high environmental levels of dioxin elsewhere) includes any effects on children's growth and development.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050161.
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about hypothyroidism and neonatal hypothyroidism; MedlinePlus provides links to additional information on thyroid diseases (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Direct health encyclopedia provides information on hypothyroidism
The Nemours Foundation's KidsHealth site has information written for children about thyroid disorders
Toxtown, an interactive site from the US National Library of Science, provides information on environmental health concerns including exposure to dioxins (in English and Spanish)
More information about dioxins is provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency and by the US Food and Drug Administration
Wikipedia has a page on the Seveso disaster (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)