Cord blood T cell subpopulations and associations with maternal cadmium and arsenic exposures

PLoS One. 2017 Jun 29;12(6):e0179606. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0179606. eCollection 2017.


Background: Arsenic and cadmium are environmental pollutants, and although the evidence for adverse immune effects after prenatal arsenic and cadmium exposures is increasing, little is known about the underlying immunological mechanisms.

Methods: We investigated the relationship between prenatal arsenic and cadmium exposures and a variety of T cell subpopulations measured in cord blood for 63 participants in the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study. Post-partum toenail concentrations of arsenic and cadmium were used as an estimate of maternal exposure during pregnancy. The characteristics of cord blood proportions of T lymphocytes and subpopulations (expression of markers for Th1, Th2, Th17, Th1Th17, induced and natural regulatory T cells and NKTs) are presented.

Results: In regression analyses, maternal arsenic exposure levels were inversely associated with cord blood T helper memory cells (-21%, 95% CI: -36%, -3%) and the association was found to be stronger in females. They were also inversely associated with activated T helper memory cells, particularly in males (-26%, 95% CI: -43%, -3%). Similarly, inverse associations were observed between cadmium exposure levels and activated T helper memory cells (-16%, 95% CI: -30%, -1%) and also for T helper memory cells in females (-20%, 95% CI: -35%, -3%).

Conclusion: The results suggest that prenatal exposures to relatively low levels of arsenic and cadmium may contribute to altered distribution of T cell populations at birth. These changes in theory, could have contributed to the previously reported immunosuppressive effects observed later in infancy/childhood.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arsenic / analysis
  • Arsenic / toxicity*
  • Cadmium / analysis
  • Cadmium / toxicity*
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / cytology*
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Nails / chemistry
  • Pregnancy
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / drug effects*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • Young Adult


  • Cadmium
  • Arsenic