97% of Expectant Mothers Carry PFAS “Forever Chemicals”, Study Finds

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CALIFORNIA — New findings by a team of California-based researchers add to mounting concerns about pervasive chemical exposure in pregnant women. This heightened exposure carries significant risks for both the mothers and their unborn children.

“These results should serve as a stark warning,” says Tracey Woodruff, Professor and Director of the Reproductive Health and Environment Program at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). “It’s time to delve deeper into the role these chemicals play in maternal health conditions and health disparities. We encounter hundreds of chemicals on a daily basis, and this research takes us a step closer to grasping their true impact on our health.”

Tracey Woodruff, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF)

Published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, the government-funded study reveals the presence of several deleterious chemicals, including variants of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in the blood of 302 expectant mothers participating in the study. Further investigation also detected these substances in the umbilical cord blood of their infants.

Surprisingly, despite an agreement between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and PFOS manufacturer 3M over two decades ago to phase out the use of PFOS, a type of PFAS notorious for its health hazards, it was found in at least 97% of the blood samples analyzed. PFOS has been linked to numerous serious health issues, including congenital disabilities.

Additionally, the majority of the expectant mothers tested positive for abnormal fatty acids and chemicals used in pesticides, medicines, and plastics production.

The study identifies links between these harmful substances and an increased risk of gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia – a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Particularly worrying is the discovery of long-chain fatty acids, previously only observed in individuals suffering from Reye’s syndrome, a severe illness causing swelling in the liver and brain, in the blood of the study participants. These types of fatty acids are a significant concern due to the lack of understanding about their health effects and their usage in plastic manufacturing, highlights Jessica Trowbridge, another UCSF-affiliated author of the study.

Alongside these findings, recent tests reveal the extensive presence of PFAS in the drinking water of many US cities, with a report from the US Geological Survey (USGS) stating that 45% of US drinking water contains PFAS contamination. PFAS—also known as “forever chemicals” for their resistance to natural breakdown—pose serious health risks, including cancer, reduced fertility, and kidney disease. They can enter drinking water through industrial sites, sewage treatment plants, landfills, or certain firefighting foams.

National drinking water standards for six types of PFAS have been proposed by US officials, and the EPA has introduced a new framework aimed at restricting the entry of new PFAS chemicals into the market. Major chemical producers, including 3M and Dupont, have agreed to settlements potentially offering billions of dollars to impacted communities for toxic chemical testing and removal from their drinking water.

In light of the high maternal mortality rates in the US, which doubled between 1999 and 2019 and disproportionately affect Black mothers, this research raises critical concerns about prenatal exposure to environmental toxins. Policymakers should heed this “wake-up call” about the harmful impact of chemicals related to plastics and PFAS, concludes Woodruff.

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