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News, Science & Research

Early life exposure to chemical group PFAS increases cardiometabolic risk through adolescence

Study led by University researchers nominated as one of four papers of month by National Institute of Environmental Health Science

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Early exposure to compounds known as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances — also referred to as PFAS — can lead to cardiometabolic defects later in life, according to a study led by University researchers. The study was one of four nominated as papers of the month by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science last month.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that are “found in a wide range of consumer products that people use daily” such as non-stick kitchenware and have been linked to adverse health effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical structure of PFAS makes them very resistant to breakdown, so although the manufacturing of some of these chemicals has been phased out, they can still be found in food, water and the bodies of living organisms. 

Today, PFAS can be detected in the blood of almost all Americans, said the study’s co-author Joseph Braun, assistant professor of Epidemiology and the director of the Center for Environmental Health and Technology.

“There has been growing concern over PFAS contamination in drinking water in the U.S.,” wrote first author of the study and Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Nan Li in an email to The Herald. She added that “numerous communities nationwide have (PFAS) contaminated drinking water in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level.” 

The researchers were interested in examining the impact of these chemicals on the health of children over a longer period of time.  

Although there had been studies suggesting a connection between high levels of PFAS exposure and increased obesity during childhood, there were very limited studies on adolescent health, Braun said. “We really wanted to fill that gap.”

In order to study the effects of PFAS on adolescents, the researchers tracked blood serum levels of four of the most commonly detected PFAS in children from their second gestational semester until age 12. They compared the levels of exposure to cardiometabolic risk factors, such as impaired insulin sensitivity, increased inflammation and increased fat located in the abdomen. 

The study findings showed that an increased exposure to a combination of the four common PFAS during gestation was associated with worsened cardiometabolic health at age 12. Two of those chemicals were especially influential, Braun said. 

The researchers hope these findings will shed light on the impact these substances have on human health. They are planning further studies to determine the biological mechanisms by which PFAS affect the body. Braun’s lab is developing experiments to determine PFAS metabolic markers — chemicals that are positively correlated with PFAS exposure and cardiometabolic risk factors. “If we can identify these metabolic markers, we might be able to identify high-risk kids and give interventions early on,” Braun said.

Other next steps include determining additional types of PFAS present in children, and testing whether physical activity levels and diet quality would mitigate the impact of PFAS exposure on adolescent cardiometabolic risk, he added.

“A paper like this is going to help with public health in looking at adverse outcomes (of PFAS),” said Jason Cannon, an associate professor of toxicology at Purdue University. Cannon, who studies the impact of PFAS exposure on the brain, added that population studies such as the one the researchers conducted may “tremendously help (scientists to) go back to the lab and design experiments to try to understand why (these effects) are occurring.” 

Braun also hopes PFAS research will help guide public health policy. 

“There’s not a lot of things people can do individually to reduce their exposure once exposed,” Braun said, adding that he hopes his team’s findings can “give policy makers information so they can prevent exposure at the population level and set health-based regulatory guidelines that protect people’s health because at the end of the day, that’s what’s really important — protecting people’s health.”

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