Relationship of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) with parasitism, iron homeostasis, and other health outcomes: Results from a cross-sectional study on recently arrived African immigrants

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Abstract

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are toxic and persistent chemicals produced between 1930s and 1980s, which accumulate in humans and wildlife. Although a decreasing trend of PCB levels in humans has been described in developed countries, mainly as a consequence of strict regulations and remediation plans, an inverse trend has been recently reported in people from developing countries. We had the opportunity of sampling a series of African immigrants recently arrived to the Spanish archipelago of the Canary Islands, in which high levels of PCBs have been described, and we studied the relationships between their level of contamination and health status. A total of 570 subjects who underwent a complete medical examination and a face-to-face interview were recruited for this study. Hematological and biochemical parameters (blood and urine) were determined in all participants. Serology for the diagnostic of infectious diseases was also performed, and direct identification of parasites was performed in feces, urine or blood samples when appropriate. It is remarkable that up to 26.0% of the population had intestinal parasites, and we found an inverse relationship between PCB levels and parasitism and parasitic diseases: median values of PCBs were lower in parasitized subjects than in subjects without parasites in stool (237.6 ng/g fat vs. 154.4 ng/g fat for marker PCBs, p=0.015) and median values of dioxin-like PCBs were lower in subjects carrying pathogen parasites than among subjects showing non-pathogen parasites in stool (0.0 ng/g fat vs. 13.1 ng/g fat, respectively; p=0.001). Although this inverse association had been described in some vertebrates this is the first study reporting such an association in humans. Furthermore, it has been also recently described that PCBs may disrupt iron metabolism, and we found a direct relationship between serum iron and total PCBs burden (r=0.231, p=0.025), suggesting that PCBs, although at subclinical level, could play a role on iron homeostasis. Although the role of PCBs in parasitism and in the iron metabolism needs future research, our findings may help to understand the adverse health outcomes associated to environmental exposure to PCBs and they might be used in exposed populations as indicators of subtle effects due to environmental insult.

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