‘Forever chemicals’ discovered in all umbilical cord blood in 40 studies | PFAS

PFAS toxic chemicals have been detected in every cord blood sample across 40 studies conducted over the past five years, finds a new review of the scientific literature from around the world.

Together, the studies examined nearly 30,000 samples, and many linked fetal exposure to PFAS to health complications in unborn babies, young children, and later in life. Uloma Uche, an environmental health sciences fellow at the Environmental Working Group, which has analyzed data from peer-reviewed studies, said the results of the studies were “disturbing.”

“Even before you come into the world, you’re already exposed to PFAS,” she said.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a class of about 12,000 chemicals commonly used to make products resistant to water, stains, and heat. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not decompose naturally, nor do they build up in human bodies and the environment.


The federal government estimates that they are in 98% of Americans’ blood. The chemicals are linked to birth defects, cancer, kidney disease, liver problems, and other health issues, and the Environmental Protection Agency recently found that there is no safe level of exposure to some types of PFAS in water.

Humans are exposed to chemicals everywhere in multiple ways. It is estimated that PFAS contaminates the drinking water of more than 200 million people in the United States, and has been found at alarming levels in meat, fish, dairy, crops, and processed foods. It’s also found in a range of everyday consumer products, such as nonstick cookware, food packaging, waterproof clothing, contractors like Scotchgard, and some dental floss.

PFAS in products can be absorbed through the skin, swallowed or inhaled as they separate from the products and move into the air.

“The presence of these chemicals also poses a threat to pregnant women, as it acts as the first contact with PFAS before it is transmitted from the uterus to the developing fetus via the umbilical cord,” O’Shea said.

Scientists have focused on umbilical cord blood because the umbilical cord is the lifeline between mother and baby. Uchi added that the findings are particularly worrying because fetuses “are more susceptible to these exposures because their developing bodies do not have the mechanisms to deal with the chemicals.”

Studies have linked fetal exposure to elevated total cholesterol and triglycerides in children, and changes in bile acids in their bodies, which can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

Some studies have also linked umbilical cord blood exposure to disturbances in the parathyroid glands and microbial cells in the colon.

PFAS can remain in the body for years or even decades, and some studies link fetal exposure to influences throughout childhood and adulthood, including cognitive function, reproductive function, changes in weight, eczema, and altered glucose homeostasis.

Studies have identified about 35 different types of PFAS compounds, including some newer chemicals that industry and some regulators claim do not build up in the body. However, science is limited in the number of PFAS compounds that can be detected in the blood, so it is very likely that many of the chemicals are passed on to fetuses.

The EWG said the best protection for women is to avoid using products containing PFAS and to use reverse osmosis granular activated carbon filters that can filter out the chemicals, if they are in the mother’s drinking water.

However, O’Shea said the findings underscore the need for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban all non-essential uses of PFAS, set limits for all PFAS compounds in drinking water, halt industrial discharges, and set limits for PFAS in food.

Despite overwhelming evidence that all PFAS studied are persistent in the environment and toxic, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have so far resisted banning non-essential uses of the chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency last year launched a broad plan aimed at curbing chemical use and limiting exposure, but public health advocates say it falls far short of what the situation requires. It is also highly concentrated on four out of 12,000 PFAS compounds.

“I’m a mother of two — and I have a seven- and three-year-old, and knowing I could have exposed my kids to PFAS is upsetting,” O’Shea said. “Through this review, we are asking the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take simple steps to reduce exposure to PFAS, and to protect our children.”