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Scientists at UC San Francisco have found something surprising in pregnant women…and their children.

A study published yesterday (March 17, 2021) in Environmental Science & Technology has detected 109 chemicals, including 55 chemicals never before reported in people and 42 “mystery chemicals,” whose sources and uses are unknown.

The chemicals were found both in the blood of pregnant women and their newborn children, suggesting they are traveling through the mother’s placenta. They believe that they most likely come from consumer products or other industrial sources.

Tracey J. Woodruff, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at UCSF, said, “These chemicals have probably been in people for quite some time, but our technology is now helping us to identify more of them.” 

She goes on to warn, “It is alarming that we keep seeing certain chemicals travel from pregnant women to their children, which means these chemicals can be with us for generations.”

The team used high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) to identify man-made chemicals in people.

Even though these chemicals can be provisionally identified using chemical libraries, they need to be confirmed by comparing them to the pure chemicals produced by manufacturers known as “analytical standards.” 

And, shock of all shocks, manufacturers do not always make these available.

For example, chemical manufacturer Solvay recently stopped providing access to a chemical standard for one perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS) compound that has emerged as a replacement for phased-out PFAS compounds. 

The researchers have been using this chemical standard to evaluate the presence and toxicity of the replacement PFAS.

Co-lead author Dimitri Panagopoulos Abrahamsson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow with UCSF’s PRHE said, “These new technologies are promising in enabling us to identify more chemicals in people, but our study findings also make clear that chemical manufacturers need to provide analytical standards so that we can confirm the presence of chemicals and evaluate their toxicity.”

Of the 109 chemicals researchers found in the blood samples from pregnant women and their newborns, 40 are used as plasticizers, 28 in cosmetics, 25 in consumer products, 29 as pharmaceuticals, 23 as pesticides, 3 as flame retardants, and 7 are PFAS compounds — which are used in carpeting, upholstery, and other applications. 

It is certainly possible that there are other uses for these chemicals, but these are the most common uses for them.

The researchers report that 55 of the 109 chemicals they identified appear not to have been previously reported in humans:

  • 1 is used as a pesticide (bis(2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidini-4-y) decanedioate)
  • 2 are PFASs (methyl perfluoroundecanoate, most likely used in the manufacturing of non-stick cookware and waterproof fabrics; 2-perfluorodecyl ethanoic acid)
  • 10 are used as plasticizers (e.g. Sumilizer GA 80 – used in food packaging, paper plates, small appliances)
  • 2 are used in cosmetics
  • 4 are high production volume (HPV) chemicals
  • 37 have little to no information about their sources or uses (e.g., 1-(1-Acetyl-2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidin-4-yl)-3-dodecylpyrrolidine-2,5-dione, used in manufacturing fragrances and paints–this chemical is so little known that there is currently no acronym–and (2R0-7-hydroxy-8-(2-hydroxyethyl)-5-methoxy-2-,3-dihydrochromen-4-one (LL-D-253alpha), for which there is limited to no information about its uses or sources. 

Dr, Woodruff cautions, “It’s very concerning that we are unable to identify the uses or sources of so many of these chemicals. EPA must do a better job of requiring the chemical industry to standardize its reporting of chemical compounds and uses. And they need to use their authority to ensure that we have adequate information to evaluate potential health harms and remove chemicals from the market that pose a risk.”

It’s hard to overstate how alarming this is. If this isn’t a call for us to research what we’re putting in our bodies, we don’t know what is.