Project 1

Impact of Early Life Exposure to Environmental and Social Stressors on Substance Use
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Studying the impact of early life exposure to PCE and social stressors on unhealthy alcoholic beverage consumption and illicit drug use.

Project Leader

Ann Aschengrau
Boston University School of Public Health

Project Description

Tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene, PCE) is a widely used solvent in dry cleaning, textile processing, and metal degreasing. Because most of its use occurs in uncontrolled occupational settings, PCE is a common contaminant of U.S. public drinking water supplies and hazardous waste sites. From 1968 to 1990, families across New England were exposed to PCE when it leached into their drinking water from the vinyl lining of asbestos cement water distribution pipes. Studies of adults with occupational exposure to PCE and closely related solvents have shown impairment of visuospatial function; memory, attention and executive skills; mood changes; and increased prevalence of cerebral pathology. There is now emerging evidence for neurotoxic effects from prenatal and childhood exposures, critical periods of vulnerability for the developing nervous system.

Our prior birth cohort study found that early life exposure to PCE-contaminated drinking water was associated with substance use during adolescence and adulthood. Building on this research, this study will focus on whether early life exposure to PCE and social stressors, alone and in combination, increase the subsequent occurrence of substance use during adolescence and adulthood.

We will (1) examine the dose-response relationship between early life exposure to PCE-contaminated drinking water and substance use during adolescence and adulthood, including illicit drug use and unhealthy alcoholic beverage consumption; (2) examine the dose-response relationship between early life exposure to social stressors (such as childhood abuse and neglect, household dysfunction, negative peer relationships and neighborhood violence) and substance use during adolescence and adulthood; and (3) examine how the relationship between early life exposure to PCE-contaminated drinking water and subsequent substance use is modified by early life exposure to social stressors.

By using an interdisciplinary approach to assess a combination of chemical and social stressors during a susceptible life stage, this research will provide preliminary data for a larger future study and help improve our understanding of the complex etiology of substance use, a condition associated with substantial morbidity and mortality in the US with enormous health, social, and economic costs.

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