Exposure to PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are often called “forever chemicals,” pose a variety of risks to children and adults. The chemicals, which are commonly found in drinking water, personal care items, nonstick cookware, food packaging, and other products, have been found to have clear links to certain cancers, cardiovascular issues, fertility struggles, and other health issues.

Now, a newly released study confirms that the risk to humans associated with PFAS begins even sooner—even before birth.

Researchers from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute studied 545 mother-offspring pairs from Project Viva, a Boston-based cohort in its 25th year. During pregnancy, PFAS in the mothers’ blood samples were measured. Between 16 and 20 years later, researchers examined the BMIs (body mass indexes) of the children born to those mothers, now teenagers or young adults. The research found a clear link between higher levels of the chemicals and higher BMI. In fact, obesity risk went up by 13% to 59% with heightened exposure to the substances. In particular, kids of mothers with greater exposure saw more rapid BMI increases during puberty (between the ages 9 and 11).

Lead author of the study, Mingyu Zhang, said that identifying “novel early-life environmental factors” is important in preventing childhood obesity, and that the study gives new meaning to the phrase “forever chemicals,” which was originally meant to explain that PFAS are consistently present in the environment we live in.

“Our study showed that their prenatal health effects may also have a lasting impact,” Zhang said. “Our findings have significant public health implications, and highlight the need for stricter regulations on PFAS usage and further research into best practices for mitigating their impact—especially on vulnerable populations.”

This isn’t the first time prenatal exposure to PFAS has shown a link to obesity. A study led by Brown University researchers yielded similar results earlier this year. That study’s author, Joseph Braun, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Brown’s School of Public Health, said that the association was observed even at low levels of exposure, meaning that even though PFAS have been phased out of many products, the impact of the chemicals is still present.

“The fact that we see these associations at relatively low levels in a contemporary population suggests that even though PFAS usage in products has decreased, pregnant people today could still be at risk of harm,” Braun said. “This means, according to our findings, that their children could also be at risk of PFAS-associated harmful health effects.”

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