The “forever chemicals” known as PFAS have been getting more attention in the past few years as multiple studies have been published about their connection to certain diseases and cancers. Media outlets have written and reported about those studies upon release, but there has been little exploration beyond the initial publications.
Recently, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a non-profit in Anchorage, hosted a webinar focused on pers- and polyfluoralkyl substances and children to highlight the ground-breaking research linking PFAS exposure to metabolism in teens and young adults. The discussion with one of the researchers of the latest study was part of the CHE-Alaska series, which is part of a larger network of individuals and organizations focused on environmental health.
The study, “Exposure to PFAS substances and glucose homeostasis in youth,” found that exposure to synthetic chemicals alter biological processes like the metabolism of amino acids and fats and also changes how the thyroid functions. That alteration impacts a child’s growth and development and increases the risk of chronic diseases and many cancers. The research, conducted by a team of researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, was published in the National Institutes of Health Environmental Health Perspectives.
Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been linked to liver and kidney disease, reproductive issues and certain cancers. But it wasn’t yet known if it impacted metabolic processes. The new study focused on finding the link between PFAS mixtures and changes in amino acid and lipid metabolic pathways in teens and young adults.
“This was the first study that took this approach — looked at all of these (markers) in kids’ blood, measured different PFAS and looked at if PFAS was making the broad biological changes,” said Dr. Jesse Goodrich, co-author of the report and assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Population and Public Health Sciences. “We saw consistent results across the groups.”
Goodrich said the synthetic chemicals disrupt the metabolism and interfere with hormones, stimulate fat storage and alter appetite control which all lead to weight gain. He said obesity is often driven by the metabolism and when it is injured it does not work how it’s supposed to.
The research found links to tyrosine metabolism and lipid metabolism which translates to increased thyroid disease, kidney disease, fatty liver disease and other cancers.
What are PFAS?
There are more than 12,000 known PFAS chemicals and they are used in many products including firefighting foams, nonstick cooking pans, clothing, food packaging and cosmetic products. It has also been found in drinking water and certain foods.
Most Americans have PFAS in their blood, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Water exposure is one of the main ways people are exposed. Levels of PFAS in water can be reviewed through the Environmental Working Group’s national tap water database, which is searchable by zip code.
PFAS are especially troubling because the toxic chemicals stay in the body for five to seven years. The way to lower the effects of PFAS is to cut off exposure as quickly as possible.
Childhood exposure is especially harmful
The most recent report made it clear that children have a higher susceptibility to the chemicals than adults because they are still developing. This is a critical time of growth when diseases that later manifest take hold in a child’s body.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that these results were more prominent in girls, Goodrich said. Higher PFAS levels in girls were linked to a higher risk factor for type 2 diabetes than for boys.
Researchers analyzed test results from 312 overweight or obese teenagers who were recruited for the Study of Latino Adolescents at Risk between 2001 and 2012 and 137 young adults who were a part of the Southern California Children’s Health Study from 2014 through 2018.
Goodrich, who has spent the last decade researching “forever chemicals,” said the study focused on Hispanic teens and young adults because Hispanics are already at a higher risk for metabolic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses due to environmental factors.
“This is an environmental justice question,” Goodrich said. “Our hypothesis is, any group that is at risk for obesity or metabolic disease is likely to be more impacted than a group that has healthier lifestyles, exercise, etc.”
The increased research studies focused on PFAS open many reporting possibilities for journalists beyond the initial reports.
Story ideas on PFAS include:
- How are doctors factoring in this exposure with young patients?
- What is the status of PFAS testing to determine a child’s or young adult’s PFAS load, and how accessible is it? (Note: experts say that while testing exists, it’s hard to get and they hope it will become more routine in the future.)
- What is the environmental justice situation around PFAS, and what is being done about it?
- Are policies being developed to help overburdened communities reduce exposure or become educated about the dangers of PFAS?
- Are there solutions in place that are decreasing exposure or helping communities become more aware of the dangers of PFAS?
- If families find out about elevated levels of PFAS in their children, what can they do, what are they doing, how are they coping?