Prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzo[a]pyrene-DNA adducts, and genomic DNA methylation in cord blood

Environ Health Perspect. 2012 May;120(5):733-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1104056. Epub 2012 Jan 17.


Background: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are carcinogenic environmental pollutants generated during incomplete combustion. After exposure and during metabolism, PAHs can form reactive epoxides that can covalently bind to DNA. These PAH-DNA adducts are established markers of cancer risk. PAH exposure has been associated with epigenetic alterations, including genomic cytosine methylation. Both global hypomethylation and hypermethylation of specific genes have been associated with cancer and other diseases in humans. Experimental evidence suggests that PAH-DNA adduct formation may preferentially target methylated genomic regions. Early embryonic development may be a particularly susceptible period for PAH exposure, resulting in both increased PAH-DNA adducts and altered DNA methylation.

Objective: We explored whether prenatal exposure to PAHs is associated with genomic DNA methylation in cord blood and whether methylation levels are associated with the presence of detectable PAH-DNA adducts.

Methods: In a longitudinal cohort study of nonsmoking women in New York City, we measured PAH exposure during pregnancy using personal air monitors, assessed PAH internal dose using prenatal urinary metabolites (in a subset), and quantified benzo[a]pyrene-DNA adducts and genomic DNA methylation in cord blood DNA among 164 participants.

Results: Prenatal PAH exposure was associated with lower global methylation in umbilical cord white blood cells (p = 0.05), but global methylation levels were positively associated with the presence of detectable adducts in cord blood (p = 0.01).

Conclusions: These observations suggest that PAH exposure was adequate to alter global methylation in our study population. Additional epidemiologic studies that can measure site-specific cytosine methylation and adduct formation will improve our ability to understand this complex molecular pathway in vivo.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Benzo(a)pyrene
  • DNA Adducts / blood*
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood
  • Humans
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • New York City
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / blood*
  • Pregnancy


  • DNA Adducts
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • benzo(a)pyrene-DNA adduct
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons-DNA adduct
  • Benzo(a)pyrene