Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals that have a wide range of commercial applications. Thousands of individual PFAS are used in oil- and water-repellant textiles, personal care products, firefighting foams, food packaging, and many other household products.
PFAS have become known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in both the environment and the human body. And high exposure to PFAS has been linked to everything from liver damage to thyroid issues to cancer.
And now, researchers from Brown University, working with the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program at the National Institutes of Health, have linked prenatal exposure to PFAS with an increased risk for childhood obesity. Their research was published in the June issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
ECHO is a nationwide research program designed to measure the effects of a broad range of early environmental influences on child health and development. The Brown University study used data collected over two decades from 1,391 children between the ages of 2 and 5 years and their mothers who were enrolled in ECHO research sites in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado, New Hampshire, Georgia, and New York.
“The findings were based on eight research cohorts located in different parts of the U.S. as well as with different demographics,” said lead author Yun “Jamie” Liu, a postdoctoral research associate in epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health. “This makes our study findings more generalizable to the population as a whole.”
The researchers analyzed the levels of seven different PFAS in blood samples collected from mothers during pregnancy. They then calculated each child’s body mass index, an approximate measure of body fat. They found that higher levels of PFAS in a mother’s blood during pregnancy were related to higher BMIs. Increased risk of obesity was seen equally for male and female children. What’s more, these associations were observed even at low levels of PFAS exposure.
That fact that even low levels of PFAS exposure were linked to higher BMI is concerning, said senior author Joseph Braun, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Brown’s School of Public Health.
“This is important to note,” Braun said, “since PFAS exposures have changed over time as some manufacturers have voluntarily phased out their use…. The fact that we see these associations at relatively low levels in a contemporary population suggests that even though PFAS usage in products has decreased, pregnant people today could still be at risk of harm…[and] that their children could also be at risk of PFAS-associated harmful health effects.”
The Brown team intends to conduct further research to examine the associations between maternal PFAS exposure and obesity-related health outcomes in older children, teens, and adults.