Prenatal Exposure to Chemical Mixtures Linked to Increased Risk of Metabolic Syndrome in Children

A new study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) suggests that prenatal exposure to a combination of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may contribute to poorer metabolic health in childhood, potentially increasing the risk of metabolic syndrome later in life. The findings, published in JAMA Network Open, shed light on the long-term health consequences of exposure to these ubiquitous substances.

Understanding Metabolic Syndrome and Endocrine Disruptors

Metabolic syndrome (MetS) is a cluster of factors, including abdominal obesity, hypertension, and insulin resistance, that collectively elevate the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. EDCs, on the other hand, are chemical substances that can interfere with the body’s hormonal system, growth, energy balance, and metabolism. Given their widespread presence in our environment, exposure to EDCs is difficult to avoid.

The ATHLETE project, as part of the HELIX (Human Early Life Exposome) cohort, aimed to assess the combined impact of these substances on all metabolic syndrome factors. The study involved 1,134 mothers and their children from six European countries, with prenatal exposure to 45 endocrine disruptors analyzed through blood and urine samples collected during pregnancy or from the umbilical cord after birth.

Mixtures of Chemicals Associated with Higher Risk

When the children were between 6 and 11 years old, they underwent a clinical examination, interview, and collection of biological samples. The data obtained included waist circumference, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels, which were aggregated to generate a risk index for metabolic syndrome.

Statistical analysis revealed that mixtures of metals, perfluoroalkylated and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS), organochlorine pesticides, and flame retardants (or PBDEs) were associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. In the case of metals, the association was primarily due to the effect of mercury, with the main source being the intake of large fish.

PFASs, also known as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their persistence, are widely used in various products such as pesticides, paints, non-stick pans, and fast food packaging. Similarly, organochlorine pesticides, banned in Europe in the 1970s, continue to pose a risk due to their permanence in the environment.

Nuria Güil Oumrait, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study, noted that the associations were stronger in girls for mixtures of PFASs and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), while boys were more susceptible to exposure to parabens. These differences are likely due to the interference of endocrine disruptors with sex steroid hormones.

Martine Vrijheid, co-director of ISGlobal’s Environment and Health over the Lifespan programme and senior author of the study, concluded, “Our results suggest that exposure to widespread mixtures of endocrine disruptors during pregnancy may be associated with adverse metabolic health in both boys and girls. This association may contribute to the current increase in the prevalence of lifetime metabolic syndrome, which currently affects 1/4 of the adult population, with upward trends evident even among young people.”

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