Study Finds Exposure to Fire-Retardant Can Cause Health Defects in Children of Exposed Parents

June 9, 2020

A joint study from Emory University and University of Georgia researchers has shown that exposure to a now-banned flame retardant can alter the genetic code in sperm, leading to major health defects in children of exposed parents. The study was recently published in Scientific Reports.

Co-authored by Michele Marcus, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology, environmental health and pediatrics at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and School of Medicine, the study is the first to investigate how polybrominated biphenyl-153 (PBB153), the primary chemical component of the flame retardant FireMaster, impacts paternal reproduction.

“We have been following this cohort for more than 20 years documenting health impacts among those directly exposed and their children and grandchildren,” says Marcus. “This new work provides a biological mechanism for these impacts to be passed to future generations and is a game changer for understanding the impacts of environmental exposures.”

In 1973, an estimated 6.5 million Michigan residents were exposed to PBB153 when FireMaster was accidentally sent to state grain mills where it made its way into the food supply. In the decades since, a range of health problems including skin discoloration, headache, dizziness, joint pain and even some cancers have been linked to the exposure.

More striking, the children of those who were exposed seemed to experience a host of health issues as well, including reports of hernia or buildup in the scrotum for newborn sons and a higher chance of stillbirth or miscarriage among adult daughters.

The research team looked at the expression of different genes in their human spermatogenesis model after dosing with PBB153 and found marked alterations in gene expression between dosed and un-dosed cells, specifically at genes important to development, such as embryonic organ, limb, muscle, and nervous system development.

“PBB153 causes changes to the DNA in sperm in a way that changes how the genes are turned on and off,” says Katherine Greeson, environmental health science doctoral student in UGA’s College of Public Health and Regenerative Bioscience Center.

“PBB153 seems to turn on these genes in sperm which should be turned off, which may explain some of the endocrine-related health issues observed in the children of exposed parents,” says Greeson.

The senior author of the study is Charles Easley, assistant professor in the department of environmental sciences at UGA. Contributing authors from Emory University include Kristen Fowler, Alyse Steves, Elizabeth Marder, Metrecia Terrell, Hillary Barton, and Michael Koval.