PFAS study links exposure to obesity


New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-08-2023 7:02 PM

A new National Institutes of Health study suggests prenatal exposure to PFAS is linked to slightly higher body mass index and obesity risk in children. Some of the data used came from New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study – operated out of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth – was one of eight groups assessed in the national study, which used pooled data from 1,391 mother-child pairs all enrolled in the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes Program

While researchers said the rise in childhood and adolescent obesity in the U.S. is widely attributed to diet and lack of physical activity, fetal exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like PFAS, may predispose individuals to higher body fat and risk of obesity.

Researchers in the NIH study quantified concentrations of seven PFAS in maternal plasma or serum in pregnancy, and then measured child weight and height between the ages of 2 and 5. The study documents “a pattern of subtle positive associations of PFAS concentrations in pregnancy with BMI z-scores and risk of overweight/obesity.”

“Our findings of positive associations … are biologically plausible,” researchers wrote. “Prior studies have shown that PFAS can readily pass through the placenta and move from the maternal to the fetal circulation.”

Twenty-eight mother-child pairs from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study were analyzed as part of the NIH study. The cohort first started in 2009, when medical providers and Dartmouth staff began enrolling pregnant women at clinics in the Concord and Lebanon regions. Today, the study has over 1,500 women and 1,500 children from both New Hampshire and Vermont who use private, unregulated water systems (private wells). 

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Dartmouth started the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study because pregnancy and childhood are critical times when vulnerability to environmental contaminants may be enhanced, and similarly, the potential for short- and long-term health impacts of exposure. The study actively follows participants from early pregnancy into childhood, collecting data at different points in time.

The new NIH study on prenatal PFAS exposure comes after the U.S. Geological Survey recently released preliminary findings from soil tests done at 100 sites throughout New Hampshire in 2021, where PFAS was found in every single sample.