New Study Links PFAS Exposure to Altered Fetal Development, Shifting Focus on Prenatal Health Risks

January 19, 2024
2 mins read

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals,” have been a subject of growing concern in the scientific community due to their persistent nature and potential health effects.  Researchers from the University of Aberdeen and Örebro University recently completed a study that was published in The Lancet Planetary Health. This study revealed fresh and alarming information regarding the effects of PFAS, namely on prenatal development.

This is the first study of its sort to quantify PFAS in human fetuses and do comprehensive metabolic profiling. By examining 78 fetuses, it was possible to gain ground-breaking understanding of how these substances may impact people from the very beginning of their development. The importance of these results was highlighted by University of Aberdeen Professor Paul Fowler, who said, “We found PFAS in the livers of the fetuses, and unfortunately, the results provide strong evidence that exposure to these forever chemicals in the womb affects the unborn child.”

According to the study, fetal exposure to PFAS during pregnancy is associated with changes in liver function and metabolism. There are worries over the long-term health effects of these changes because they resemble several metabolic changes seen in adults. Örebro University professor Tuulia Hyötyläinen observed a clear correlation between these compounds and modifications to embryonic metabolism, particularly in the areas of bile acid and lipid metabolism.

“Changes in the central metabolism can profoundly affect the whole body. In particular, changes during fetal development can have long-lasting consequences for future health.” 
- Matej Orešič, Professor of Medicine at Örebro University
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The history of PFAS use begins in the 1950s, when these chemicals were first widely utilized in a wide range of items, including skin treatments, makeup, and non-stick cookware. The magnitude of their possible health consequences have only recently become apparent, despite their widespread use.

New research has added to our knowledge on how PFAS affect human health. For example, a study conducted by researchers at Mount Sinai discovered a connection between certain PFAS and a higher risk of thyroid cancer. While researchers at Yale University found that PFAS can encourage colorectal cancer cells to migrate, a process linked to cancer metastasis, another study revealed that PFAS can lower immune cell activity.

“We were surprised by these chemicals’ strong association with changes to the fetal metabolism. It’s similar to certain metabolic changes occurring in adults. Specifically, we found that PFAS exposure is linked with modified bile acid and lipid metabolism in the fetuses.” 
- Tuulia Hyötyläinen, Professor of Chemistry at Örebro University.
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PFAS are a global problem due to their extensive usage, resistance to degradation, and persistence in the environment. The results of the research conducted by Örebro University and University of Aberdeen contribute to the increasing amount of data indicating that exposure to PFAS can have major and protracted negative health impacts, beginning as early as in the fetus.

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The EU, whose laws are more stringent than those in, say, China, forbids the use of several PFAS. In recent years, diseases like diabetes and pediatric obesity have become much more prevalent in China. PFAS and other environmental contaminants are thought to be contributing factors to this rise, according to research.

“A connection is very likely. And it may turn out that exposure to harmful chemicals has a comparable or even greater impact than lifestyle when it comes to certain diseases.”
- Matej Orešič, Professor of Medicine at Örebro University
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All of these research highlight the necessity of strict laws and an international effort to solve the problems caused by PFAS. PFAS of various kinds have been outlawed by the EU, although global regulatory differences still exist. Because the research from Örebro University and the University of Aberdeen emphasizes the need to protect not just the present generation but also the ones to come, it is anticipated that this will lead to increased awareness and tougher control of PFAS.

A troubling picture of the pervasive effects of these chemicals on human health is painted by this research on PFAS, which includes the most recent study from Örebro University and the University of Aberdeen. It emphasizes how urgent it is to carry out further study, raise public awareness, and implement regulations to lessen the risks associated with PFAS.

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