'Forever Chemicals' in Pregnancy Linked to Childhood Obesity

New research suggests that higher PFAS levels in a mother's body during pregnancy may increase the risk of overweight or obesity in children.

For decades, manufacturers have used per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — also known as 'forever chemicals' — in a wide range of commonly used products.

Though many companies have phased out PFAS use in manufacturing, these chemicals can persist in the environment for years. They are also linked to health conditions such as cancer, reproductive challenges, and immune system problems.

What's more, PFAS manufacturers knew about these health risks decades before the public, according to one recent report.

In a new study published on June 7 in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers from Brown University wanted to determine whether prenatal PFAS levels could impact obesity risks in children.

To conduct the study, the team collected data from 1,391 mothers and their two to five-year-old children enrolled in eight Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) sites between 1999 to 2019.

The scientists analyzed the mother's blood samples to evaluate the levels of seven different "forever chemicals" during pregnancy. Then they determined each child's body mass index (BMI).

The team found that both male and female children of mothers with higher PFAS levels during pregnancy had a slightly increased risk of obesity. However, the scientists also observed these associations even at lower PFAS levels.

Specifically, they observed that two forever chemicals, PFHxS and PFNA, had the most significant association with BMI z-score and one of the strongest associations with risk of overweight/obesity. According to the study authors, previous research has shown that PFAS can pass through the placenta and into fetal circulation, with PFHxS having the highest placental transfer rate.

Still, the associations between PFAS levels in pregnancy and childhood obesity risk were not as profound as other risk factors, like maternal obesity or smoking.

In a news release, senior author Joseph Braun, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health at Brown's School of Public Health, says, "The fact that we see these associations at relatively low levels in a contemporary population suggest that even though PFAS usage in products has decreased, pregnant people today could still be at risk of harm. This means, according to our findings, that their children could also be at risk of PFAS-associated harmful health effects."

The study authors say that more research is needed to evaluate the associations of forever chemicals during pregnancy and other obesity-related health effects in children.

"There is a continued interest in understanding the effects of low-level PFAS exposure on children's health," Braun adds. "Studies like this one can help researchers and policymakers better understand the risks of PFAS in order to take effective actions to protect vulnerable populations."

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