Over the past few decades, concern has been steadily increasing over the prevalence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in our environment and their effects on human health. Used in everyday products such as plastics, personal care items, and pesticides, common endocrine-disrupting chemicals include persistent organic pollutants (POPs), perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phthalates, and phenols (including parabens and bisphenol A). Exposure to these pervasive toxins has been linked to problems with reproduction and fetal growth, as well as a host of other health issues, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.
Now, a new study has uncovered a connection between prenatal exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and accelerated body mass index gain in young children. The research was published October 18 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The study followed 1,911 mother-child pairs by using data from Project INMA, an ongoing Spanish research project that aims to assess the effect of exposure to environmental pollutants during pregnancy on childhood health. A team of researchers led by scientists from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) measured the concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in urine and blood samples collected from pregnant women. Subsequently, they measured the BMI of the women’s children over the first nine years of their lives. BMI is a measure that combines a child’s height and weight and is commonly used to assess weight status and obesity.
The statistical analysis showed that prenatal exposure to specific POPs, including hexachlorobenzene (HCB) and dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), as well as certain PFASs, can significantly alter a child’s BMI trajectory from birth through age 9. These alterations are characterized by either lower birth size followed by accelerated BMI gain or higher birth size with accelerated BMI gain.
One of the main novelties of the study is that, in addition to studying individual chemicals, the researchers also conducted a mixture analysis. This involved examining how a combination of different EDCs might impact children’s growth, which offers a more realistic representation of how humans are exposed to these pollutants. This approach showed that exposure to a mixture of EDCs was associated with an increased risk of accelerated childhood BMI gain, with HCB, DDE, and PCBs being the main contributors to this mixture effect.
“These revelations are of significant public health interest, as accelerated growth during childhood has been linked to various health issues during childhood and in later life, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes”, said Martine Vrijheid, PhD, head of ISGlobal’s program on Environment and Health over the Lifecourse and senior author of the study.
The study’s authors emphasized the need for more research to assess the health implications of prenatal environmental chemical exposure over the course of a child’s life. Understanding these connections is crucial for informing policies and interventions aimed at reducing the health risks associated with exposure to harmful chemicals during pregnancy, they said.