Exposure to ‘forever chemicals’ during pregnancy could lead to childhood obesity

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Exposure to chemicals in common household products during pregnancy could increase the risk of obesity in kids, researchers explain. Thousands of individual per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) fill personal care products, firefighting foams, food packaging, medical products, and many other household items. Toxic PFAS are incredibly durable, and scientists believe they’ll survive in the environment for thousands of years.

The study analyzed the levels of seven different types of these “forever chemicals” in blood samples collected from mothers during pregnancy. They then calculated each child’s BMI. Researchers from Brown University studied data collected over two decades from just under 1,400 children between the ages of two and five, as well as their mothers.

“The findings were based on eight research cohorts located in different parts of the U.S. as well as with different demographics,” says study author Dr. Yun 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 team found that the more PFAS mothers had in their blood during pregnancy the higher the risk their children would suffer from obesity, even when the levels were low. This increased risk was equal among male and female children.

Childhood obesity: Overweight boy standing on a scale
(Photo by Dimmo on Shutterstock)

Study author Dr. Joseph Braun, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Brown’s School of Public Health, adds that this is important to note since PFAS exposures have changed over time as some manufacturers have voluntarily phased out their use in response to concerns of associated health effects as well as environmental persistence.

“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,” Braun says in a university release. “This means, according to our findings, that their children could also be at risk of PFAS-associated harmful health effects.”

Dr. Braun hopes that this type of data can help inform and influence environmental policy and safety guidelines.

“There is a continued interest in understanding the effects of low-level PFAS exposure on children’s health,” Braun continues. “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.”

Future research will look at the links between maternal PFAS exposure and obesity-related health outcomes in older children, and eventually teens and adults.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

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