Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exposure and cardiovascular, endocrine and metabolic diseases: A population-based cohort study in a North Italian highly polluted area

Environ Int. 2018 Nov;120:215-222. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.08.022. Epub 2018 Aug 10.


Background and aims: Exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has been linked to the onset of cardiovascular, endocrine, and metabolic diseases, but no conclusive evidence has been provided so far. A chemical factory produced PCBs from 1938 to 1984 in Brescia (North Italy) resulting in environmental contamination and human exposure. We aimed to evaluate the association between PCB serum levels and subsequent incidence of chronic diseases through a prospective cohort study design.

Methods: Based on surveys conducted in Brescia province between 2001 and 2013, a cohort of 1331 subjects with at least one measure of PCB serum levels during the period was selected and followed longitudinally. Serum concentration of total PCBs was computed summing up the levels of 24 PCB congeners determined by gas chromatography. The data on incidence of hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and endocrine and metabolic chronic diseases were retrieved from the Brescia Health Protection Agency database. Poisson regression models adjusted for age, level of education, BMI, cholesterol level, tobacco smoking and alcohol drinking were employed to calculate rate ratios (RRs).

Results: 1331 subjects were enrolled (45.7% males, mean age 50.6 years) contributing to 10,006 person-years of follow-up. A dose-response relationship was observed between PCB serum levels and the onset of hypertension (RR for 2nd and 3rd tertiles of serum PCB distribution: 2.07, 95% CI 1.18-3.63, and 2.41, 1.30-4.47, respectively). A possible, though not statistically significant, increase of the risk of cardiovascular disease was also found (RR for 2nd and 3rd tertiles of serum PCB distribution: 1.61, 0.72-3.64, and 1.96, 0.86-4.48, respectively). The results based on lipid-standardized PCBs were slightly attenuated. No association was found between PCB serum levels and occurrence of diabetes and endocrine disorders. Stratified analysis by body mass index showed an increased risk of hypertension in subjects at 2nd and 3rd tertile of serum PCB distribution in overweight/obese subjects only.

Conclusions: These results suggest that PCBs might play a role in the development of hypertension and possibly cardiovascular disease, though alternative explanations are to be considered too.

Keywords: Cardiovascular diseases; Chronic disease incidence; Endocrine diseases; Environmental pollution and human health; Hypertension; Polychlorinated biphenyls.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Body Mass Index
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Italy / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Metabolic Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / blood*
  • Prospective Studies


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls