Toxic PFAS Can Cross the Placenta Exposing Unborn Children

Toxic PFAS Can Cross the Placenta Exposing Unborn Children

Health effects of environmental exposures have been a growing concern all over the world in the last decades. Of particular concern is exposure to known endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are found in personal care products, additives or contaminants in food, household products, including chemical coatings. Because of the endocrine system’s critical role in maintaining cell integrity, and in the regulation of a number of other biological processes, impairments in any part of the endocrine system can lead to cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. 

Laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group – a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, exposed the shocking truth that American babies are born pre-polluted with highly persistent perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The PFAS group comprises thousands of man-made chemicals, which, thanks to their unique chemical and physical properties, are used in everything from frying pans and paper food packaging to clothes, cleaning agents and firefighting foams.

Studies have shown how highly fluorinated chemicals pass through the placenta throughout pregnancy and deposit to the embryo and fetal tissue. Further research is now needed to ascertain the effect that these substances have on different fetal organs. 

Maternal PFAS Exposure May Affect the Development of Unborn Babies and Breastfeeding Infants 

People can be exposed to PFAS from a variety of different sources over time, including from today’s consumer products. However, ongoing exposure to PFAS in drinking water can substantially increase total exposure in humans and can lead to concentrations in the body high enough to potentially increase health risks. 

The accumulation of PFAS in maternal tissue (e.g. placenta, umbilical cord blood, and mammary glands) is related to the growing incidence of endocrine-associated pediatric disorders. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can alter a baby’s hormonal system by modifying or substituting natural hormones and interfering with cellular signaling. The weight of the evidence shows that prolonged exposure to certain contaminants can affect a baby’s well-being over time by causing subtle, but important changes in early development that can manifest later in childhood and adulthood, such as learning and cognitive disabilities, behavioral problems, and nervous system imbalances.

Developmental effects affecting the infants and older children:

  • Reduced response to vaccines
  • Lung function impairment
  • Lower birth weight
  • Delayed mammary gland development
  • Obesity

In recent years, special attention has also been focused on the toxic chemicals detected in breast milk since it’s consumed by infants. Researchers have found that protein-rich breast milk can be a major source of PFAS exposure, as these chemicals accumulate easily in human breast milk and can build up to worrying levels in breastfeeding babies. Prenatal exposure can affect immunity, hormonal functions, and the development of the nervous system.

How Can Expectant Mothers Protect Their Future Children From Toxic PFAS Chemicals?

Because PFAS chemicals have an important bioaccumulation potential, these chemicals are only very slowly eliminated from the body, which means even short-term exposure could be harmful. Reproductive health experts say that advice that preventing exposure to pregnant women or women trying to become pregnant is critical to prevent childhood neurological harm. FDA scientists confirmed that chemical contamination of PFAS has made its way into the U.S. food supply chain. The main sources of PFAS substances today are food, in the form of fish, milk, meat and eggs, or in the drinking water, if you happen to live near military bases, industrial plants, commercial airports or firefighting training sites. 

During early development, the human fetus is vulnerable and relatively susceptible to impact from adverse conditions within the mother’s environment. As these persistent organic pollutants can be absorbed by the mother through food or water and subsequently by the unborn baby, who will absorb them via the placenta, pregnant women living in or near areas that have been identified as having been contaminated with PFAS should take steps to limit their exposure to these chemicals. 

Decreased exposure to PFAS chemicals may be achieved by:

  • using consumer products from green labels;
  • avoid greasy or oily packed and fast foods, as the packages often contain grease-repellant coatings;
  • monitoring PFAS levels in drinking water and taking action as soon as possible if PFAS are discovered in the drinking water at concentrations that exceed the health advisory levels;
  • avoid eating fish, including fish caught in areas affected by PFAS; the exposure also comes from sources other than drinking water, such as fish, as long-chain PFAS has been shown to bioaccumulate in freshwater fish to concentrations that pose a threat to human health can accumulate in freshwater fish to concentrations that pose a threat to human health.

While the potential magnitude of PFAS risk is daunting, public health advocacy organizations and environmental attorneys need to be proactively committed to strengthening drinking water protections and supporting community groups who are fighting for their community’s right to safe drinking water. Both persistence and prevalence of PFAS chemicals make it a simmering threat that should be mitigated to minimize the spread of adverse health outcomes in humans and negative environmental impacts.


About the author:

Treven Pyles is the administrative director at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a widely recognized law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama, with a distinguished record of helping victims of wrongful exposure to dangerous substances to cover the high medical costs of a serious illness, potentially lifelong and fatal. Treven is in charge of organizing complex operations that involve people and information and knows the importance of addressing the clients’ needs in complex cases like environmental litigation

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