OBJECTIVES: To examine the association of immune cell number and function with occupational exposure to substances contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). METHODS: A cross sectional medical survey. The exposed participants were employed at two chemical plants between 1951 and 1972 in the manufacture of 2,4,5-trichlorophenate and its derivatives. The reference group consisted of people with no occupational exposure to phenoxy herbicides who lived within the communities of the workers. Data from a total of 259 workers and 243 unexposed referents were included in the analysis of immune function. Laboratory tests for immune status included enumeration of circulating leukocyte and lymphocyte populations, proliferative responses of circulating lymphocytes to mitogens and antigens, and serum concentrations of the major immunoglobulins and complement factor C3. RESULTS: The workers had substantial exposure to substances contaminated with TCDD, as indicated by a lipid adjusted mean serum TCDD concentration of 229 ppt compared with a mean of 6 ppt in the unexposed referents. Workers were divided into categories based on their serum TCDD concentration. For all categories except the lowest, with values of serum TCDD comparable with the unexposed referents, there were increased odds of having lower counts of CD26 cells (activated T cells) (odds ratio (OR) 1.0, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 0.5 to 1.8 for TCDD < 20 ppt; OR 1.6, 95% CI 0.8 to 3.2 for TCDD 20-51 ppt; OR 2.7, 95% CI 1.4 to 5.1 for TCDD 52-125 ppt; OR 2.6, 95% CI 1.4 to 4.9 for TCDD 125-297 ppt; OR 2.4, 95% CI 1.3 to 4.6 for TCDD 298-3389 ppt). A less consistent finding was decreased spontaneous proliferation of cultured lymphocytes. However, increases were found in proliferation of lymphocytes in response to concanavalin and pokeweed in workers in the high TCDD category. Age, cigarette smoking, and alcohol were significant predictors of several immunological outcomes. CONCLUSIONS: Associations between serum TCDD concentration and both a decrease in circulating CD26 cells and decreased spontaneous background proliferation were the major findings of this study. These results are unlikely to be of clinical importance but may reflect limited evidence for an association between immunological changes in workers and high serum concentrations of TCDD, or chance findings resulting from the evaluation of multiple immunological variables.
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