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A new study looks at the effects of chemicals like PFAS, BPA and phthalates during pregnancy. Fly View Productions/Getty Images
  • A large European study of mothers and their offspring finds children can be impacted by endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • The study found that women with higher exposure to these chemicals while pregnant had children who were more likely to develop obesity.
  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA, phthalates, and PFAS are widespread in consumer products

Prenatal exposure to various endocrine-disrupting chemicals — including metals, plastics, and pesticides — have been linked to a cluster of health problems in childhood, including obesity, according to a large multi-national European study.

The first-of-its-kind study, published in JAMA Network Open May 23, looked at the effects of 45 different endocrine- disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on children who were exposed to them in utero. EDCs can be naturally occurring or human-made chemicals that interfere with hormones in the body, and are associated with a wide array of health issues, including obesity.

“When the mothers were exposed to higher levels of mixtures of endocrine disrupting chemicals, specifically metals (mainly mercury), perfluoroalkylated and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS), organochlorine pesticides, and flame retardants (or PBDEs), their children had a higher risk of metabolic syndrome at age 6-11 years,” Martine Vrijheid, PhD, a Professor at IS Global in Barcelona, Spain, and senior author of the research, told Healthline.

PFAS have also been called “forever chemicals” because they take a long time to break down.

Pediatric metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of interconnected conditions including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and glucose intolerance. While there are many factors driving the childhood obesity epidemic, the role of EDCs in this complex equation cannot be disputed.

“You have all this data, not just in this study but other studies as well, that show that endocrine disruptors promote everything that we’re trying to prevent or treat in child and adolescent obesity,” said Stephanie E. Green, MD, MS, a Pediatric Endocrinologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine who wasn’t affiliated with the research.

Vrijheid and a large team of researchers used longitudinal health data from the Human Early Life Exposome (HELIX Project), an ongoing collaboration of health studies in Europe. The study looked at a total of 1,134 mother and child duos from six European countries including Spain, France, Greece, Lithuania, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Pregnant women were recruited for the study between 2003-2009. Researchers took biological samples from the women including urinary metabolites and blood biomarkers to check for the presence of 45 different EDCs. Unlike in previous research on the subject, the team didn’t target single EDCs, but instead looked at the effects of mixtures of the chemicals, which are more representative of real-world exposure.

Once the women had a child, the team continued to follow up with them until 2016, when the children were between the ages of 6 and 11.

Doctors assessed the children using a composite metabolic syndrome risk measurement system including waist circumference, blood pressure, urine and blood metabolites, insulin levels, and cholesterol.

Children of mothers with higher levels of exposure to some, but not all, of the EDCs had an increased risk of metabolic syndrome during childhood.

“The associations we saw were related to exposure to mixtures of chemicals, rather than one single chemical. This highlights the importance of studying the health effects of everyday mixtures of chemicals, rather than looking at them one-by-one,” said Vrijheid.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals exist in the natural world. However, more commonly, they are found in a wide variety of commercially used products today.

Some varieties that researchers investigated include:

Researchers found that PFAS, pesticides, and flame retardants were associated with the highest risk of metabolic syndrome. On the other hand, chemical classes, including phthalates, bisphenols, and parabens, did not demonstrate an increased risk.

Of all the EDCs, metals, predominantly mercury, had the largest association with metabolic syndrome.

Associations also varied by sex: female children showed stronger associations to certain EDCs than male children.

“Associations were stronger in girls for mixtures of PFASs, while boys appeared to be more susceptible to exposure to parabens. Since endocrine disruptors interfere with sex steroid hormones, sex differences can be expected,” said Vrijheid.

Both Green and Vrijheid told Healthline that the most important step to limiting exposure to EDCs is regulation of the use of the chemicals themselves. Many of them are simply so pervasive in consumer products today that even pledging to not eat fast food or to stop using plastic likely isn’t enough.

These are chemicals that are in our water, our homes, even the air itself.

“What has to happen is governmental interventions that clean the water supply that prevent companies from using these chemicals in their packaging, clothing, shampoos, makeup, and all of that,” said Green.

“The first responsibility lies with regulators – exposure to toxic chemicals should be prevented, especially in vulnerable periods such as pregnancy and childhood…The results of studies such as ours are important to influence and improve both policy and practical guidance,” said Vrijheid.

Children of women exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in pregnancy are more likely to develop pediatric metabolic syndrome and obesity.

Researchers used longitudinal data from more than 1,000 moms and their children from six different European countries.

EDCs include a wide array of chemicals, both natural and human-made, including PFAS, mercury, phthalates, and pesticides.

Experts say more regulation is needed to eliminate these chemicals from consumer products.