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PFAS may increase the risk of disease in unborn children suggests new study

Tuulia Hyötyläinen, Aidan McGlinchey  and Matej Orešič.

Tuulia Hyötyläinen, Aidan McGlinchey and Matej Orešič are three of the researchers behind the article that was published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

PFAS are chemicals that may cause cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. Research from Örebro University now suggests that these chemicals affect people as early as the fetal stage of development.
“We see that PFAS likely has a great metabolic impact, which suggests an increased risk of certain diseases later in life,” says Matej Orešič, professor of medical sciences.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of synthetically produced chemicals used in a wide range of everyday products worldwide. They are often called “forever chemicals” since it takes a very long time for these substances to break down naturally and can remain in the bodies of humans and animals for many years.

There is strong evidence that PFAS can affect both the immune system and metabolism and exposure to certain levels of PFAS is associated with cancer, diabetes, and a variety of other diseases. These chemicals have been used since the 1950s in a wide variety of products, such as non-stick frying pans, ski boots, water-repellent clothing, and food packaging. They are also common in makeup and skin creams.

Researchers at Örebro University, Professor Paul A. Fowler of the University of Aberdeen, and other researchers have published a unique study involving 78 fetuses in the prestigious journal The Lancet Planetary Health. It is the first study of its kind in which researchers have conducted extensive metabolic profiling and measured PFAS in human fetuses.

“We found PFAS in the livers of the fetuses, and unfortunately, the results provides strong evidence that exposure to these forever chemicals in the womb affects the unborn child,” says Professor Paul Fowler. “Those exposed to higher levels of PFAS have altered metabolism and liver function long before birth.”

The researchers consider it likely that at least some of these effects will be persistent and likely increase the risk of metabolic diseases in adulthood.

“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,” says Tuulia Hyötyläinen, professor of chemistry at Örebro University.

The liver plays a significant role in human well-being.

“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,” says Matej Orešič.

The likely impact of PFAS is similar to the changes that occur as a result of metabolic diseases like diabetes and fatty liver. The 78 fetuses analysed by the researchers were voluntarily aborted between weeks 12 and 19 and considered essentially healthy.

Several types of PFAS are banned by the EU, where regulations are stricter than in, for example, China. Diseases such as childhood obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed in China in recent years. Researchers believe that PFAS and other environmental chemicals may be one of the causes of this increase.

“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,” says Matej Orešič.

He and his colleagues at Örebro University hope their research will contribute to greater awareness and stricter regulation of PFAS.

The article “In utero exposures to perfluoroalkyl substances and the human fetal liver metabolome in Scotland: a cross-sectional study” was published in The Lancet Planetary Health on 8 January 2024. The study was led by Tuuila Hyötyläinen, professor of chemistry and Matej Orešič, professor of medicine, both from Örebro University, as well as Paul A. Fowler, professor and researcher at the University of Aberdeen.

Read the article. 

Text: Mikael Åberg
Photo: Anna Lorentzon
Translation: Jerry Gray

What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS?

  • PFAS is a collective term for thousands of industrially produced chemicals.
  • These chemicals are also called high-fluorinated substances.
  • All PFAS chemicals are man-made and are now found everywhere in nature.
  • UV light, chemical substances, or high temperatures do not break down PFAS.
  • The chemicals comprise a carbon chain in which fluorine atoms entirely or partially replace the hydrogen atoms.