Objective. To evaluate the effects of in utero and lactational exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins on the mental and psychomotor development of infants.

Design. Prenatal PCB exposure was estimated from the levels in maternal plasma during the last month of pregnancy. Postnatal PCB and dioxin exposure of breastfed infants was calculated from levels in human milk samples and the duration of breastfeeding. Infants were examined at 3, 7, and 18 months of age with the Bayley Scales of Infant Development.

Setting. General community.

Participants. Voluntary sample of 207 mother-infant pairs. One hundred five infants were breastfed and 102 were bottle-fed.

Interventions. None.

Results. Higher in utero exposure to PCBs was associated with lower psychomotor scores at 3 months of age: a doubling of the PCB load resulted in a decrease of 3 points. Breastfed infants scored significantly higher on the psychomotor score at 7 months of age, compared with formula-fed infants. However, when corrected for confounders, the psychomotor score of the 66% highest-exposed breastfed infants (>756 pg total PCB-dioxin toxic equivalent) was negatively influenced by this postnatal exposure to PCBs and dioxins, and was comparable to the psychomotor score of the formula-fed infants. Breastfed infants also scored higher on the mental scale at 7 months of age in a dose-dependent way. There was no significant influence of the perinatal PCB and dioxin exposure on the mental outcome at 3 and 7 months of age. At 18 months of age neither the mental nor the psychomotor score was related to perinatal PCB or dioxin exposure, nor to the duration of breastfeeding.

Conclusions. Prenatal PCB exposure has a small negative effect on the psychomotor score at 3 months of age. PCB and dioxin exposure through breastfeeding has an adverse effect on the psychomotor outcome at 7 months of age. The mental outcome at 7 months of age is positively influenced by breastfeeding per se; the perinatal exposure to PCBs and dioxins does not influence this outcome. At 18 months of age the development is affected neither by PCB and dioxin exposure nor by feeding type.

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