Study Links PFAS Exposure to Childhood Leukemia Risks

Researchers found a "strong and consistent" dose-response relationship between some PFAS exposure among expecting mothers and their child's risk of leukemia.

A new study has identified a link prenatal exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and the development of leukemia in children, raising further concerns about the effects of widespread water contamination from the controversial chemicals used in firefighting foam and other products.

In findings published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers found that children born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who were exposed to PFAS before birth, appeared to have higher incidences of childhood leukemia, which is the most common cancer in chidren.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute also found that the childhood leukemia risk has increased throughout the years, alongside greater use of PFAS, which are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” since they can build up in the environment and human body, causing a myriad of health risks.

PFAS Childhood Cancer Risks

PFAS include a group of over 9,000 man-made substances that have been widely used for decades, to resist grease, oil and water. However, there is now growing evidence that exposure to the chemicals may cause various cancers, liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and other injuries.

In this latest study, researchers note that PFAS exposure can pass from the mother to the unborn child through umbilical cord blood.

While most of the attention on the chemicals in recent years has focused on the use in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is used to fight fuel-based fires and has resulted in toxic exposures for firefighters and widespread water contamination in areas around military bases, airports and firefighter training locations, PFAS are also found in a number of consumer products, including food containers, bottles and wrappers.

3M Company, DuPont, Chemguard, Inc., Tyco Fire Products and other manufacturers of chemicals and fire safety products have faced a thousands of PFAS water contamination lawsuits brought by local water providers in recent years, as well as injury lawsuits seeking financial compensation for individuals diagnosed with certain types of cancer after regular exposure to the toxic chemicals.

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Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

Exposure to firefighting foam chemicals may result in an increased risk of cancer for firefighters, military and airport personnel.

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This most recent study involved measuring maternal serum levels for 19 different PFAS chemicals during the first trimester for 800 expecting mothers from the Finnish Maternity Cohort. The samples were taken from women between 1986 and 2010, and included 400 cases where the child developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and 400 controls.

The researchers noted that as levels of PFAS in mothers’ blood levels increased through the years, so did their children’s risk of childhood leukemia. When restrictions were placed on some of the chemicals in the early 2000s, those levels, and the risk of childhood leukemia, fell.

“Thus, our data also demonstrate that the mixture of PFAS exposures varied over time, an important consideration in the interpretations of our findings,” the researchers indicated. “We also saw the strongest suggestive increased risk of ALL in association with perfluorononanoic acid in a later time period (2006-2010) corresponding to when its levels were at their highest in the maternal sera, similarly supporting plausibility.”

However, the researchers determined that one PFAS, known as N-methyl-perfluorooctane sulfonamidoacetic acid, a byproduct of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), showed “a strong and consistent dose-response relationship”, and that mothers with the highest concentrations of PFOS was associated with the development of ALL.

PFAS Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in Children

Childhood ALL is a form of cancer, which occurs when the child’s bone marrow produces too many immature white blood cells, known as lymphocytes. These blood cells are unable to combat infections well, which is the primary job of white blood cells.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia accounts for more than a quarter of all childhood cancers worldwide. The five-year survival rate for children under 14 years old is 92%. However, that rate drops to 77% for children between ages 15 and 19, according to the NCI.

If younger patients are kept ALL free for five years they are generally considered to be cured.

PFAS Exposure Lawsuits

Manufacturers of the chemicals now face thousands of PFAS cancer lawsuits being pursued by individuals throughout the U.S., which may just be the tip of a litigation iceberg, as more information is learned about the long-term health risks associated with PFAS exposure in both adults and children.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense conducted an assessment of PFAS contamination on U.S. military bases, indicating 24 installations, with a total population of 175,000, exposed residents to PFAS in drinking water. However, some environmental groups have contested that number, saying at least 116 military instillations are contaminated, exposing more than 640,000 residents to toxic AFFF and PFAS.

Although the manufacturers have reached proposed settlement over damages sustained by local water suppliers, who have been left with the costs associated with cleaning up the toxic chemicals, there have been no settlements in PFAS injury lawsuits brought by individuals exposed to the chemicals through drinking water, or firefighters directly exposed through AFFF foam.

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