Prenatal Toxin Exposure Poses Long-Term Health Risks

A new study has revealed that exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy can lead to serious health issues in elementary school children, affecting their lives for years to come. The research, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, found that children born to European mothers exposed to four families of endocrine-disrupting chemicals had elevated levels of metabolic syndrome between the ages of 6 and 11.

5 Key Points

  • Prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals is linked to metabolic syndrome in children aged 6-11.
  • Children in the highest-risk group had significantly higher rates of obesity, elevated blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol and insulin levels compared to the low-risk group.
  • Metabolic syndrome in childhood is highly predictive of chronic diseases in adulthood.
  • The study tested for mixtures of nine chemical classes commonly found in the environment.
  • Reducing exposure to toxic chemicals, especially during pregnancy and childhood, is crucial for long-term health.

The study, led by Nuria Güil-Oumrait, a Fulbright scholar at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, found that 62% of children exposed to the highest levels of chemicals were overweight or obese, compared to 16% in the low-risk group. Additionally, the high-risk group had significantly higher levels of blood insulin, triglycerides, and blood pressure, as well as lower levels of HDL-cholesterol, which is considered a “good” blood fat.

Metabolic syndrome is typically associated with adult cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Still, the growing epidemic of childhood obesity has seen symptoms appearing in kids at younger and younger ages. Having metabolic syndrome as a child is highly predictive of chronic disease as an adult, experts say.

The research team performed blood and urine tests on 1,134 mothers during their pregnancies and later repeated those tests on their children between the ages of 6 and 11. The tests sought mixtures of nine chemical classes of endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in the environment.

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Their Impact

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are environmental pollutants that can cross the blood-placenta barrier and interfere with human metabolism and hormonal balance. The study tested nine chemical classes: pesticides, heavy metals, flame retardants, plasticizers, and PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances).

These chemicals have been linked to various health problems, such as cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, liver damage, and hormone disruption. The study found that all chemical families, except for phthalates, increased the risk of metabolic syndrome in children.

Studies have found alarming levels of toxic heavy metals in the soil and water, including lead and arsenic, in manufactured baby food. Experts say there is no safe level of lead, while arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals can harm the body and brain at relatively low doses. A December 2014 meta-analysis of studies on arsenic found that a 50% increase in arsenic levels in urine would be associated with a 0.4-point decrease in the IQ of children between the ages of 5 and 15.

Flame retardants have been linked to a 300% higher risk of cancer. These chemical toxins are the most significant contributor to intellectual disability in children worldwide, resulting in a total loss of 162 million IQ points and more than 738,000 cases of intellectual disability, according to an August 2020 study.

Phthalates, found in hundreds of consumer products such as food storage containers, shampoo, makeup, perfume, and children’s toys, have been connected to premature death among people ages 55 to 64 in the United States. Prior research has linked phthalates with reproductive problems, such as genital malformations and undescended testicles in baby boys and lower sperm counts and testosterone levels in adult males. Phthalates are also linked in studies to childhood obesity, asthma, cardiovascular issues, and cancer.

The study’s focus on metabolic syndrome, which combines measurements of blood sugars, lipids such as cholesterol, fat tissue, and the impact on the heart, provides a more realistic picture of the potential health impact of daily exposure to numerous toxic substances.

Minimizing Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

Experts emphasize the importance of minimizing exposure to plastics and other toxins, especially during pregnancy and childhood, when developing fetuses and small bodies are more vulnerable. Some ways to reduce exposure include:

  • Reducing rice intake for infants and children and rinsing grains well before use
  • Avoiding stain-resistant carpets and upholstery and waterproofing sprays
  • Checking local drinking water for levels of PFAS and other chemicals and using appropriate filters
  • Using glass or ceramic containers instead of plastic when heating food
  • Choosing cosmetics, food, and household products free from endocrine disruptors

Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals, emphasizes the need for stricter safety standards and the removal of these chemicals from commerce and everyday products, given the steep rise in metabolic syndrome in the US.