University of Louisville doctoral candidate Jamie Young works in her lab.
University of Louisville doctoral candidate Jamie Young conducted research on the interaction between arsenic and a fatty diet. Photo provided by Jamie Young

Chronic exposure to arsenic could cause all kinds of health problems for adults. But according to research from the University of Louisville, that exposure could also be passed on to their kids.

“Essentially, the idea is if you are exposed as an adult, and you decide to have kids, that exposure doesn’t end,” said UofL doctoral candidate, Jamie Young. “So it is passed on through the children.”

The UofL investigators used in utero mouse models to look at how chronic exposure to the toxicants arsenic or cadmium in the womb would play out when those mice were grown. And, whether that exposure would exacerbate the negative health effects of a high-fat diet.

Dr. Chris States, associate dean for Research at the UofL School of Medicine and one of the lead investigators on this study, said chronic exposure can cause a variety of diseases in adults, including many cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. 

Because arsenic and cadmium can find their way into ground water, he said one way people can be chronically exposed to arsenic is by drinking from contaminated wells.

“People who are using private wells are on their own to find out if there’s arsenic in their water,” States said. Contamination can be natural dependent on the type of rock, he said, or result from human activity and leach into the ground water.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated some 44 million people in the 48 contiguous U.S. states were on private wells in 2017. Of those, about 2.1 million people were potentially using wells that were contaminated with high concentrations of arsenic. 

To make things worse, the UofL research also showed those who are chronically exposed to toxicants in utero could be more sensitive to the effects of a high-fat diet, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

“The addition of arsenic actually causes more problems,” Young said. Combined with the negative side effects of high fat diet, she said, the outcomes are worse.

This study was to gather preliminary data to support a number of grant applications, which States hopes to use to continue studying the interaction of different health factors at the UofL Center for Integrative and Environmental Health Sciences (CIEHS), where he’s also director.

The CIEHS is one of several Centers under the umbrella of the Envirome Institute. CIEHS research seeks to understand how life style factors interact with exposure to environmental toxicants in human health and disease and how life stage and gender influence these interactions.

Listen here for the full interview on the UofL Today radio show with Mark Hebert.