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Correspondence Volume 122 | Issue 4 | April 2014

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Environ Health Perspect; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1307796R

Prenatal PCB-153 Exposure and Decreased Birth Weight: Verner et al. Respond

Marc-André Verner,1,2 Melvin E. Andersen,3 Harvey J. Clewell III,3 and Matthew P. Longnecker4

1Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA; 2Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden; 3The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA; 4Epidemiology Branch, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA

About This Article open

Citation: Verner MA, Andersen ME, Clewell HJ III, Longnecker MP. 2014. Prenatal PCB-153 Exposure and Decreased Birth Weight: Verner et al. Respond. Environ Health Perspect 122:A89–A90;


This study was supported by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Long-Range Research Initiative and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. M.-A.V. conducted this study as a consultant for the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, an independent nonprofit organization. M.P.L. received no compensation from the ACC. The authors certify that their freedom to design, conduct, interpret, and publish research was not compromised by any sponsor.

Published: 1 April 2014

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In our recent paper (Verner et al. 2013), we suggested that gestational weight gain (GWG) confounded the association between prenatal PCB-153 (polychlorinated biphenyl-153) exposure and birth weight observed in the meta-analysis by Govarts et al. (2012). Govarts et al. have now performed additional analyses in which they accounted for GWG in cohorts where this information could be abstracted from medical records or questionnaires. Their effort is commendable and sheds light on results from both our paper and their meta-analysis. In line with our findings, they reported that adjusting for GWG in statistical models of PCB-153 and birth weight substantially reduced the strength of the association, without completely attenuating it.

In Govarts et al.’s reanalysis, adjustment for GWG resulted in a reduction in the association from a 293-g decrease [95% confidence interval (CI): –536, –50] in birth weight per 1-µg/L increase in cord serum PCB-153 to 153 g (95% CI: –340, 30), which represents a 48% reduction in the effect estimate. In comparison, our analyses using pharmacokinetic modeling suggested that 79% of the 150-g (95% CI: –240, –50) reduction in birth weight per 1-µg/L increase in cord serum PCB-153 reported in the original paper by Govarts et al. (2012) may be attributable to GWG. It is difficult to speculate how much more attenuation of the PCB-153–birth weight association would occur if it were possible to accurately measure gain in fat mass during pregnancy—the underlying, true confounder—and adjust for it. The data presented by Butte et al. (2003) show that only 57.8% of the variability in the amount of fat mass gained in pregnancy is explained by GWG. Sensitivity analyses to assess the influence of such an improved adjustment would be of interest.

In their letter, Govarts et al. touched on the assumptions of pharmacokinetic models. Both meta-analyses of observational data (Greenland and O’Rourke 2008) and pharmacokinetic simulations of epidemiologic associations have their strengths, and both can produce results that may appear more precise and conclusive than warranted. In those settings where both approaches can be applied, their results can be combined and used to make an improved inference about an association that neither method can definitively quantify. The example of PCB-153 and birth weight in which confounding by GWG was revealed by pharmacokinetic modeling and subsequently accounted for in statistical models demonstrates how these two complementary approaches can work hand in hand to generate more robust effect estimates.

Whether some causal (or perhaps any) association exists between environmental PCB-153 exposure and birth weight is probably beyond the resolution of currently available or practicable methods.


Butte NF, Ellis KJ, Wong WW, Hopkinson JM, Smith EO. 2003. Composition of gestational weight gain impacts maternal fat retention and infant birth weight. Am J Obstet Gynecol 189(5):1423–1432.

Govarts E, Nieuwenhuijsen M, Schoeters G, Ballester F, Bloemen K, de Boer M, et al. 2012. Birth weight and prenatal exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE): a meta-analysis within 12 European birth cohorts. Environ Health Perspect 120:162–170; doi: 10.1289/ehp.1103767.

Greenland S, O’Rourke K. 2008. Meta-analysis. In: Modern Epidemiology (Rothman KJ, Greenland S, Lash TL, eds). 3rd ed. Philadelphia:Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins.

Verner MA, McDougall R, Glynn A, Andersen ME, Clewell HJ III, Longnecker MP. 2013. Is the relationship between prenatal exposure to PCB-153 and decreased birth weight attributable to pharmacokinetics? Environ Health Perspect 121:1219–1224; doi: 10.1289/ehp.1206457.

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