Pregnant women in NEBC may be at greater risk to harmful contaminants

Women in Northeast B.C. may be exposed to harmful contaminants during pregnancy at rates up to four times the national average. That’s according to a preliminary results of a study released by University of Montreal researchers in Fort St. John earlier this month.

Last fall, researchers collected and analyzed a week’s worth of urine samples from 30 pregnant women in Chetwynd and Dawson Creek, measuring them for the degradation byproducts of benzene, a known human carcinogen released from combustion sources such as smoking or industrial operations and found in contaminated air or water. 

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Researchers measured the urine for levels of S-phenylmercapturic acid (SPMA) and trans,trans-muconic acid (ttMA), both degradation byproducts and biomarkers for benzene exposure. 

In particular, ttMA levels in the study’s participants were three to four times higher than average levels found in women in Canada. Rates were higher in women from Chetwynd compared to Dawson Creek, and in those who self-identified as indigenous. The SPMA urinary levels were not concerning to researchers.

“In Northeast B.C., there are no bio-monitoring initiatives in the human population but it’s quite an industrialized area,” said Elyse Caron-Beaudoin, a post-doctoral fellow from the University of Montreal’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health.

“Pregnant women are at risk because those contaminants can pass in utero, and expose and impair the development of the fetus.”

However, it’s too early to say where the contaminant exposure is coming from, Caron-Beaudoin said. There weren’t many smokers in the study’s small sample size, while high ttMA levels can be sign of high processed food consumption. 

“The participants who had a higher concentrations of ttMA, they told me they didn’t consume more processed food than usual, it was mostly fresh food,” Caron-Beaudoin said.

“It is a factor that can influence results. In the next study, we want to correct for that confusion.”

Caron-Beaudoin presented the preliminary findings to a small group of Treaty 8 and Northern Health officials on June 15. The findings will now be sent for peer review by other academics and experts.

The first phase of the study was funded by the University of Montreal’s Public Health Research Institute and the West Moberly First Nation. The researchers are now looking to secure a five-year grant to expand the study, and hope to include participants from Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.

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