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Your Environment. Your Health.

Childhood Exposure to Tetrachloroethylene and Later Mental Illness

David M. Ozonoff, M.D.
Boston University School of Public Health
NIEHS Grant P42ES007381


NIEHS grantees have published a study linking early childhood exposure to the solvent tetrachloroethylene with mental health problems later in life. Tetrachloroethylene is used in dry cleaning and other industries.


Tetrachloroethylene has been shown to increase anxiety and depression, but little is known about how prenatal and early childhood exposure to the solvent affects risk for mental illness. The vinyl liner of water distribution pipes installed in Cape Cod, Mass., from the 1960s to early 1981 led to tetrachloroethylene contamination in drinking water at concentrations from 1.5 to 7,750 parts per billion. The researchers studied people who were born in Cape Cod between 1969 and 1983, including 831 people who experienced prenatal and early childhood tetrachloroethylene exposure, and 547 people who were unexposed. They used questionnaires to gather information on mental illnesses, demographic and medical characteristics, other sources of solvent exposure, and places of residence from birth through 1990.


The study showed that subjects with prenatal and early childhood exposure had an increased risk of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, but not an increased risk for depression. Although the tetrachloroethylene in Cape Cod has been addressed by periodic pipe flushing, people are still exposed to the contaminant in the dry cleaning and textile industries.


Citation: Aschengrau A, Weinberg JM, Janulewicz PA, Romano ME, Gallagher LG, Winter MR, Martin BR, Vieira VM, Webster TF, White RF, Ozonoff DM. 2012. Occurrence of mental illness following prenatal and early childhood exposure to tetrachloroethylene (PCE)-contaminated drinking water: a retrospective cohort study. Environ Health 11(1):2.

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