Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons during pregnancy and breast tissue composition in adolescent daughters and their mothers: a prospective cohort study

Rebecca D. Kehm, E. Jane Walter, Sabine Oskar, Melissa L. White, Parisa Tehranifar, Julie B. Herbstman, Frederica Perera, Lothar Lilge, Rachel L. Miller, Mary Beth Terry

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5 Scopus citations


Background: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are found in air pollution, have carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting properties that might increase breast cancer risk. PAH exposure might be particularly detrimental during pregnancy, as this is a time when the breast tissue of both the mother and daughter is undergoing structural and functional changes. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that ambient PAH exposure during pregnancy is associated with breast tissue composition, measured one to two decades later, in adolescent daughters and their mothers. Methods: We conducted a prospective analysis using data from a New York City cohort of non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic mother–daughter dyads (recruited 1998–2006). During the third trimester of pregnancy, women wore backpacks containing a continuously operating air sampling pump for two consecutive days that measured ambient exposure to eight carcinogenic higher molecular weight nonvolatile PAH compounds (Σ8 PAH) and pyrene. When daughters (n = 186) and mothers (n = 175) reached ages 11–20 and 29–55 years, respectively, optical spectroscopy (OS) was used to evaluate measures of breast tissue composition (BTC) that positively (water content, collagen content, optical index) and negatively (lipid content) correlate with mammographic breast density, a recognized risk factor for breast cancer. Multivariable linear regression was used to evaluate associations between ambient PAH exposure and BTC, overall and by exposure to household tobacco smoke during pregnancy (yes/no). Models were adjusted for race/ethnicity, age, and percent body fat at OS. Results: No overall associations were found between ambient PAH exposure (Σ8 PAH or pyrene) and BTC, but statistically significant additive interactions between Σ8 PAH and household tobacco smoke exposure were identified for water content and optical index in both daughters and mothers (interaction p values < 0.05). Σ8 PAH exposure was associated with higher water content (βdaughters = 0.42, 95% CI = 0.15–0.68; βmothers = 0.32, 95% CI = 0.05–0.61) and higher optical index (βdaughters = 0.38, 95% CI = 0.12–0.64; βmothers = 0.38, 95% CI = 0.12–0.65) in those exposed to household tobacco smoke during pregnancy; no associations were found in non-smoking households (interaction p values < 0.05). Conclusions: Exposure to ambient Σ8 PAH and tobacco smoke during pregnancy might interact synergistically to impact BTC in mothers and daughters. If replicated in other cohorts, these findings might have important implications for breast cancer risk across generations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number47
JournalBreast Cancer Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Breast cancer risk
  • Breast density
  • Breast tissue composition
  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Tobacco smoke


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