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Prenatal exposure to 'forever chemicals' may increase obesity and hypertension risk in children

A new study looks at the impact of mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals during pregnancy on children.
A new study looks at the impact of mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals during pregnancy on children. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Euronews
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Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals during pregnancy may increase the risk of obesity and hypertension in children, new research suggests.

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Endocrine disruptors (EDCs) are chemicals that are found almost everywhere in our environment.

They can be found in cosmetics, petrol, hygiene and cleaning products, clothing, furniture, cans, food packaging and plastics.

A new global study by the Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in Barcelona has shown that prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors is associated with poorer metabolic health in childhood, which in turn increases the risk of metabolic syndrome in adulthood. 

The term "metabolic syndrome" encompasses pathologies such as abdominal obesity, hypertension and insulin resistance, which together increase the likelihood of suffering from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The study was recently published in the journal 'Jama Network Open' and adds to growing evidence about the dangers of these chemicals on health.

A study in six European countries

Previous studies have already shown a link between individual exposure to some endocrine disruptors during the prenatal phase and some of the factors that make up the metabolic syndrome, particularly obesity and blood pressure. 

But this time round, the team at ISGlobal set out to assess the combined impact of these substances on the totality of metabolic syndrome factors.

The study involved 1,134 women and their children from six European countries: Spain, France, Greece, Lithuania, Norway and the UK.

Prenatal exposure to a total of 45 endocrine disruptors was analysed using blood and urine samples collected from the mothers during pregnancy or from the umbilical cord after birth.

They were followed up with a clinical examination, interview and collection of biological samples when children were between 6 and 11 to obtain a risk index for metabolic syndrome.

They found that mixtures of metals, perfluoroalkylated and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS), pesticides and flame retardants were linked to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome.

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

In regards to metals, the observed association was mainly due to the effect of mercury, which can be found in large fish.

On the other hand, chemical classes, including phthalates, bisphenols, and parabens, did not demonstrate an increased risk.

'Mixtures of chemicals from various sources'

“This study changes the way we look at EDCs by highlighting that we are exposed to mixtures of them from various sources such as food, air, and dermal contact, rather than single chemicals in isolation," Nuria Güil Oumrait, an ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study, told Euronews Health.

"The findings show that associations with health risks are observed only when these chemicals are assessed as mixtures, reflecting the more realistic scenario of our actual exposure," she added.

“Furthermore, for some groups of EDCs, these associations differed by sex, with girls being more susceptible to PFASs and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which is explained by the disruption of sex steroid hormone pathways,“ she explained.

Experts say that more governmental regulations need to be implemented to limit our exposure to these chemicals.

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But also “to prevent intake, it is important to be mindful of everyday habits that can help reduce exposure levels, contributing to a healthier environment for both individuals and their children,“ said Güil Oumrait.

These include avoiding plastic when storing or cooking food, choosing cosmetics that are free from endocrine disruptors (such as parabens, benzophenone, triclosan, and phthalates), reducing intake of processed or canned foods, and limiting consumption of animal products.

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