New Study will Examine PFAS Exposure and Cardiometabolic Disease

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Perfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, are chemicals used in commerce and industry that are commonly found in food packaging, cleaning products, water- and stain-repellant textiles, and firefighting foam. These chemicals are released from landfills, airports, fire training areas, and manufacturing facilities, and make their way into virtually all US food and drinking water systems. PFAS exposure is unavoidable and all people in the US have detectable serum concentrations of at least one PFAS.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to cardiometabolic disease risk factors like obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and hypertension. Joseph Braun, associate professor of epidemiology, says accumulating evidence shows that exposure to PFAS during gestation—a critical period of development—may increase the risk of cardiometabolic disease risk factors in childhood.

With a 4-year, $2.6M grant from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, Braun will examine the links between gestational PFAS exposure, alterations in children's metabolic signatures, and childhood cardiometabolic disease.

“We hope to identify novel biological markers of PFAS exposure that are related to cardiometabolic disease,” he said. “This will then help us to identify PFAS-exposed populations at risk of later life disease, or to develop new interventions that target biological pathways related to exposure and disease.” 

Using data from the MIREC and HOME Studies, two prospective cohorts of pregnant women and their children from Canada and Cincinnati, Ohio, respectively, Braun and his team aim to characterize children’s serum metabolome trajectories over the first 12 years of life. They will also quantify the association of these serum metabolome trajectories with cardiometabolic risk factors such as adiposity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and increased blood pressure in early-adolescence.

Using both empirical and mechanistic models, Braun’s team will identify metabolic alterations and biological pathways that mediate the associations between gestational exposure to PFAS mixtures and cardiometabolic risk factors in early adolescence.

Researchers say this will be the first study to link longitudinal measures of metabolic alterations to gestational PFAS mixture exposure and adolescent cardiometabolic health. Not only will the results improve understanding of the health effects of ubiquitous chemicals of concern and inform evaluations of PFAS toxicity, but researchers also hope they will be able to use metabolic biomarkers to identify PFAS-exposed populations at higher cardiometabolic risk in order to prevent subsequent disease.


by Laura K. Joyce P'22