A study led by the Institute of Global Health of Barcelona ( ISGlobal) and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research of France (INSERM), in collaboration with other European teams, concludes that exposure during pregnancy and in childhood to different chemical pollutants —parabens, phthalates and perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS)— is associated with a decrease in infant respiratory function.
These results, obtained from the data of more than 1,000 mothers and their sons and daughters, was published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health and represent one of the first approaches to the concept of exposome, which is the measure of all the exposures to a wide range of environmental factors (such as changes in climate, air pollution in urban and housing environments, or chemical substances) of an individual in a lifetime and how those exposures relate to health.
To date, many studies had been conducted on the impact of environmental risks on respiratory health during the first years of life, but all of them had focused on a single exposure or a group of them.
“This study is the first to use the exposome approach to identify associations between prenatal and childhood exposure to a range of important environmental factors and the deterioration of lung function, which implies a new paradigm in environmental health research,” highlights Martine Vrijheid , ISGlobal researcher and coordinator of the study.
Prevent deterioration in childhood
The new study, carried out within the framework of the European HELIX project, analyzed the data of 1,033 mothers and their sons and daughters from six European countries: Spain, France, Greece, England, Lithuania and Norway. Specifically, the team evaluated 85 exposures during pregnancy and 125 during childhood, related to outdoors and indoors environments, chemical products and lifestyle. At 6 and 12 years old, spirometry was performed on boys and girls to measure their respiratory function.
The results showed that prenatal exposure to perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) —of two types: PFOA and PNFA— was associated with lower respiratory function in childhood. PFAS are used as protectors or repellents of stains and liquids, and have many uses, including household appliances and consumer products. From the diet, among others, they are introduced in the organism and the mother transmits it to the fetus through the placenta.
Regarding exposure during childhood, the study associated nine exposures with a worse respiratory function in boys and girls. Five metabolites of phthalates —DEHP and DINP, which are mainly used as plasticizers and can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin—had the greatest association. The researcher also found a relationship with a type of phenol (ethylparaben) a compound used as a preservative in cosmetics; and with copper, which in the general population is ingested mainly through drinking water and food. In addition, a greater agglomeration of housing and density of services around the school it was also associated with worse respiratory function.
“These findings have important implications for public health,” concludes Martine Vrijheid. “Preventive measures aimed at reducing exposure to identified chemical contaminants, through stricter regulation and information to the public through labeling on consumer products could help prevent the deterioration of lung function in childhood, which in turn can have long-term health benefits,” he adds.