Kids and chemicals: PFAS exposure and the metabolism
In a recent webinar hosted by CHE-Alaska, Dr. Jesse Goodrich presented the results of a study that comprehensively examined effects of exposures to mixtures of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on human metabolisms — with a particular focus on children and young adults.
PFAS are used in numerous consumer products such as food packaging, textiles, apparel, and non-stick cookware. PFAS are linked to adverse health outcomes including liver and kidney damage, reproductive and developmental harm, immune system impairment, and certain cancers. Due to their persistence in the environment, these toxic chemicals have been dubbed "forever chemicals."
Obesity rates in the US have been steadily increasing and chemical exposures could be contributing to this trend. Increased obesity is driving increases in many major chronic diseases. Research has shown that PFAS act as obesogens, disrupting weight regulation and metabolism. Yet while many studies have shown this association, exactly how PFAS influence metabolic health has not been fully understood.
PFAS exposure during key developmental periods (such as childhood or adolescence) is a particular concern because of important metabolic tissue growth. During this crucial period, cells become specialized to carry out distinct functions.
Health impacts through metabolic pathways
Dr. Goodrich’s study looked for associations between PFAS exposure and alterations in metabolic pathways. Each metabolic pathway represents an important set of chemical reactions that occur within our cells. Understanding how PFAS affect these processes can help us more clearly understand their effects on human health.
The study looked at the effects of PFAS on two independent cohorts of children and young adults. The study used two cohorts in order to identify associations between PFAS mixtures and metabolic pathway alterations that were consistent across people of different ages.
Results showed that PFAS exposure was associated with alterations in multiple metabolic pathways. As Dr. Goodrich explained, “We found that PFAS exposure alters critical biological processes that are linked to a lot of different diseases.”
The study also found that PFAS exposure had a greater impact on children than on young adults.
The pathways altered by PFAS include processes that regulate the body’s metabolism, how much fat the liver produces, and kidney and thyroid functions. This study shows how PFAS exposure can lead to a range of chronic conditions, including thyroid disease, kidney disease, fatty liver disease, and some cancers.
Contaminated water is one major source of PFAS exposure. Many public utilities are now testing their water for certain PFAS, so individuals can find out the status of their water supply. Certain foods are another common source of PFAS exposure. Resources are available online (such as this recent Washington Post article) to help people avoid the most contaminated foods.
While individuals can strive to protect their own health from the effects of PFAS, we also need stronger regulations to stop PFAS from getting into products and the environment in the first place. PFAS are highly persistent in the environment and in organisms, so both use reduction and cleanup are key to preventing health harms. Some steps have been taken to regulate a handful of PFAS, but in order to protect our health, it will be necessary to act more quickly and comprehensively.
As Dr. Goodrich noted, “PFAS should be regulated as a class, instead of taking this one-by-one approach.” The most effective way to prevent harm from PFAS would be to eliminate all unnecessary uses of this highly problematic class of chemicals.
Visit the webinar page to watch the full recording and learn more.
This organizational blog was produced by CHE's Science Writer, Matt Lilley.