Study Investigates PFAS Exposures and Birth Outcomes in Pregnant African American Women

November 12, 2021

By Karina Antenucci

A new study published in Environment International takes a critical look at the adverse birth outcomes that exposures to a group of industrial compounds with stain, grease, and water-repellant properties commonly known as PFAS, can have on African American women. Recent alumna Che-Jung Chang, PhD, was lead author on the paper. Donghai Liang, PhD, was senior and corresponding author. 

PFAS, also called the “forever chemical” for its long-lasting environmental impact, can be found in everything from textiles to pans and food packaging. Exposures to PFAS have been associated with numerous adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes, such as lower birth weight. Notably, communities of color and those with socioeconomic disadvantage, particularly African American pregnant women and children, disproportionately experience higher levels of environmental exposure and adverse birth outcomes, indicating that disparities in environmental exposures and health effects might originate in utero. There is much that remains unknown about the detailed molecular connection between the chemicals and birth outcomes.

This first-ever study of its kind examined a cohort of 313 pregnant African American in Atlanta in the eighth to 14th week of their pregnancies to investigate this complex relationship.

Key highlights from the article are: 

  • Increased PFAS levels in serum in African American women were linked to higher odds of lower birth weight.
  • High-resolution metabolomics (the large-scale study of small molecules called metabolites that are the chemical products of the metabolism) was used to identify biological pathways and metabolites associated with both serum PFAS and fetal growth.
  • The underlying biological mechanisms of the PFAS-fetal growth relationship were shown to be amino acid, lipid and fatty acids, and bile acid metabolisms, as well as sex hormone disruption.
  • Uric acid was identified as an important mediator and biomarker reflecting the early responses of PFAS exposure and predicting reduced fetal growth.

“Our discoveries provide opportunities for more future targeted and controlled studies to develop early detection and intervention for PFAS-induced fetal growth limitations in public health or clinical settings,” says Liang.  

Additional Emory authors on the paper include Dana Boyd Barr, PhD; P. Barry Ryan, PhD; Parinya Panuwet, PhD; Melissa M. Smarr, PhD; Volha Yakimavets; Youran Tan; and Carmen J. Marsit, PhD, all from Rollins; and Ken Liu, PhD; ViLinh Ly; Dean P. Jones, PhD; and Anne L. Dunlop, MD, MPH, from Emory School of Medicine.

This project is funded by the National Institutes of Health Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes Opportunities and Infrastructure Fund.