Wild polar bears lead to $50k award for novel study on the effects of PFAS in children

Pulmonologist and critical care intensivist, Robert Blount, MD, MAS, has been awarded $50,000 through the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital’s Catalyst Pediatric Research Opportunities Fund (formerly known as the Children’s Miracle Network Fund, or CMN Fund), the highest amount that could be awarded, to study the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) on childhood lung disease.

“One of our colleagues was involved in a study evaluating polar bears where they’re living, where no other humans live. And the polar bears essentially have high levels of PFAS in them. So it’s getting into the food chain and going all the way up to the top,” Blount said. “A NHANES study showed that 95% of Americans have detectable PFAS levels. So people are really concerned about the bioaccumulation of PFAS in humans.”

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “PFAS are chemicals that resist grease, oil, water, and heat. They were first used in the 1940s and are now in hundreds of products including stain- and water-resistant fabrics and carpeting, cleaning products, paints, and firefighting foams.” One of the most recognized uses of PFAS is in the nonstick coating of common everyday cookware.

“It’s getting concentrated in a number of human organs, including the lung and lung tissue. What we don’t know is, is that a bad thing?” Blount asked. “How does it affect human health? We just don’t know. This is what this study is starting to look at.”

Blount’s lab in the Lung Biology and Cystic Fibrosis Research Center has identified a group of people who live near a 3M contamination site in eastern Iowa and western Illinois. PFAS has leached out into water supplies near the factory, and both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 3M themselves are involved in helping to identify where the contamination is, and ultimately remediating it. This grant will act as a cross-sectional pilot study to begin looking at the potential health effects of exposure to the higher levels of PFAS in human children.

Data will be collected from three sources: Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health, and Director of University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, Hans-Joachim Lehmler, PhD, leads a team that will partner with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to analyze PFAS in both the water from the contamination site and in serum collected from participants in the study. In addition, participants will wear silicon wrist bracelets over a period of time.

Blount also worked with the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC) to study the impact of air pollution on tuberculosis risk. Read about that here.

“Aerosolized PFAS is getting out in the air from a steamy shower, or from cooking with Teflon, in a way that the wrist bracelets can potentially pick up that exposure. This methodology has only been published for PFAS once before, so we’ll be testing that, too,” Blount said.

Blount and his colleagues will engage community leaders with the other stakeholders in the research, and build awareness for the study, which will enroll 50 youth between ages 8 and 18 from the identified geographical area.

“We know that human lungs contain naturally occurring surfactant, which is very vital to normal lung function. And we know from Hans’s work with PFAS that it can be deleterious to, and interfere with, the lung surfactant. We also know that PFAS can potentially decrease a person’s immunity against respiratory infections, meaning we have some pretty decent mechanistic data that PFAS could damage the lungs. And so our hypothesis is that PFAS levels will be associated with lung function decrements, and increase in respiratory infections and respiratory symptoms.”

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