Exposure in the womb to high levels of a widely used industrial chemical appears to increase a child’s risk of obesity, a new study suggests.
The research included information on just over 200 Cincinnati mothers and their children. The findings showed that youngsters whose mothers were exposed to relatively high levels of a chemical known as PFOA during pregnancy had more rapid accumulation of body fat. Specifically, those children had higher amounts of body fat by age 8 compared to kids whose mothers had less exposure to the chemical during pregnancy.
PFOA is used to make oil/water-repellent textiles, firefighting foam and nonstick coatings. The chemical was used for years at an industrial plant along the Ohio River and upstream of Cincinnati, the researchers said.
Although the study found an association between prenatal exposure to PFOA and child’s later weight, it’s important to note that this study wasn’t designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Still, the findings are “significant enough to warrant additional investigation to see if the trends continue as these children get older, and to see if other markers of either fetal growth or rapid early infancy growth are associated with these exposures,” study leader Joseph Braun said in a Brown University news release. Braun is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
In the new study, researchers measured children’s heights, weights and the amount of fat tissue they had. A previous study — done closer to the chemical plant — didn’t find an association between PFOA exposure and childhood weights. However, that study relied on self-reported information, Braun and colleagues pointed out. They suggested this might be why the two studies produced different results.
When Braun’s team looked at the children born to the two-thirds of mothers with the highest exposure to PFOA during pregnancy, they found these youngsters had up to 2.4 pounds more body fat at age 8 than those born to the one-third of mothers with the least exposure to the chemical.
While this amount of extra fat may not seem like much, it’s still enough to be cause for concern because it may contribute to increased risk of type 2 diabetes later in life, Braun said.
“There isn’t a threshold at which we say you shouldn’t add more fat mass — any more fat mass is bad fat mass,” he explained in the news release. “When you look at the risk of diabetes in adults, the risk is pretty much linear across the whole range of BMI.”
BMI (body mass index) is a rough estimate of body fat based on weight and height.
The study was published online Nov. 11 in the journal Obesity.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tips on keeping children at a healthy weight.