Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) such as benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) are widespread air contaminants released by transportation vehicles, power generation, and other combustion sources. Experimental evidence indicates that the developing fetus is more susceptible than the adult to carcinogenic effects of PAHs, although laboratory studies in rodents suggest that the dose to fetal tissues is an order of magnitude lower than that to maternal tissues. To assess fetal versus adult susceptibility to PAHs and environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), we compared carcinogen-DNA adducts (a biomarker associated with increased cancer risk) and cotinine (a biomarker of tobacco smoke exposure) in paired blood samples collected from mothers and newborns in New York City. We enrolled 265 nonsmoker African-American and Latina mother-newborn pairs in New York City between 1997 and 2001 (estimated average ambient air BaP concentrations <0.5 ng/m3). Despite the estimated 10-fold lower fetal dose, mean levels of BaP-DNA adducts as determined by high-performance liquid chromatography-fluorescence were comparable in paired New York City newborn and maternal samples (0.24 adducts per 108 nucleotides, 45% of newborns with detectable adducts vs. 0.22 per 108 nucleotides, 41% of mothers with detectable adducts). However, by the Wilcoxon signed-rank test, the levels in newborns were higher (p = 0.02). Mean cotinine was higher in newborns than in mothers (1.7 ng/mL, 47% detectable vs. 1.28 ng/mL, 44% detectable). Consistent with our prior study in a Caucasian Polish population, these results indicate increased susceptibility of the fetus to DNA damage and reduced ability to clear ETS constituents. The findings have implications for risk assessment, given the need to protect children as a sensitive subset of the population.
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