Illuminating the Immune-Altering Effects of PFAS Exposure in Pregnancy and Childhood

Dr. Carmen Messerlian presents at STEEP Science Day on Cape Cod

Joining the STEEP ranks is Dr. Carmen Messerlian, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and key personnel on STEEP’s Project 2. Dr. Messerlian’s research focuses on reproductive health, perinatal and pediatric epidemiology, and how parental exposure to environmental contaminants impacts pregnancy and offspring. She brings her expertise to join STEEP researchers, Dr. Philippe Grandjean and Dr. Pál Weihe, on the Faroe Islands to study the effect of childhood PFAS exposure.

Results from their birth cohort study have shown that the higher a mother’s blood PFAS concentration was during pregnancy, the lower the child’s vaccine antibody concentration. These results suggest that PFAS exposure in infancy may be a highly vulnerable window for immunotoxity development of the “learned” or adaptive immune system that is responsible for recognition of foreign antigens. For this reason, the transfer of PFAS via human milk has become an important risk factor that may predict lower antibody responses later in childhood. Research has shown that a doubling in PFAS exposure in infancy may decrease a child’s antibody concentration by as much as 50%, possibly rendering vaccination ineffective.

Additionally, preliminary findings suggest that elevated PFAS exposures in early childhood are linked to increased incidence of childhood infections, and possibly a higher risk of asthma and allergies. These results have strong implications relating PFAS exposure to the adverse effects on vaccine efficacy and other health impacts and argue that immunotoxicity thresholds should drive regulatory PFAS exposure limits and preventive efforts.