Grant to help Oswego continue landmark research

More than $900,000 in federal funding will help SUNY Oswego continue its landmark study on how an environmental toxicant affects growth and development.

The three-year grant from the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will support a study that began in 1990 monitoring newborns who had prenatal exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Researchers will now be able to follow these subjects from about 13 to 15 years old, said Paul Stewart, director of the study through the Oswego’s Center for Neurobehavioral Effects of Environmental Toxics.

“Children who have been exposed to high levels of PCBs have what we would call subtle behavioral deficits” which limit “their ability to inhibit their own behavior when appropriate,” Stewart said. In studies, children exposed to PCBs while in the womb tended to respond to stimuli impulsively, over-respond or respond to “non-targets,” he added.

“In the tests, the children had trouble waiting or withholding their responses, even if it meant forgoing a larger reward in the long run,” Stewart said.

Exhaustive tests of other factors—geographic, sociological, economic and others—narrowed the response inhibition behavior down to PCB exposure, said Jackie Reihman, a co-project investigator.

When the project began, it mirrored a smaller study conducted around Lake Michigan in the 1980s. The Oswego study began looking at 293 children of mothers who had eaten Lake Ontario fish during pregnancy. Initial findings were similar to the Lake Michigan study, but Oswego’s has run longer and provided a more exhaustive examination, said Edward Lonky, one of the project’s co-investigators.

The Oswego project’s focus has moved from the fish-consumption angle to the broader effects of PCB exposure.

“This is no longer a fish-eating study,” Stewart said. “The most likely predictor of the amount of exposure was how old the mother is because you accumulate PCBs in several ways over a number of years.”

He stressed that the relatively low exposure amounts mean the subjects are indistinguishable from how other children seem and act, as the differences are only apparent through well-regulated tests.

The research showed that eating Lake Ontario fish was still a risk, but only one of many sources of PCB exposure.

The grant represented a large portion of the money available through the awarding agency, showing how important reviewers considered Oswego’s project, Reihman said. Oswego will receive $285,467 the first year, $300,000 the second and $317,141 the third for instructional support, research assistants, supplies and other needed expenses.

Results appeared in such journals as “Environmental Research,” “Neurotoxicology and Teratology,” “Neurotoxicology” and the National Institutes of Health’s “Environmental Health Perspectives.” Researchers have presented at dozens of national and international conferences.

The investigating team at the college—which includes Tom Darvill, Brooks Gump, Lonky, Reihman and Stewart of the psychology department and Jim Pagano of the Environmental Research Center—has also been a model of interdisciplinary cooperation and an opportunity for everyone to learn, researchers said.

“A lot of this wouldn’t have been possible without both analytic assistance and PCB measurement from Jim Pagano,” Stewart said. “He taught me most of what I know about PCBs. His contributions are a core component of this work.”

Lonky added that Oswego’s supportive environment has also helped the project succeed. “It all starts from a willingness from the beginning by the college to give us a laboratory, startup equipment and allow us the time necessary to pursue this important work,” he said.

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(Posted: Oct 20, 2004)