Exposure to PBDE in the Womb Linked to Lifelong Metabolic Disorder

The effects of the common flame retardant PBDE (present in everything from baby pajamas to plastics and furniture) may be both serious and potentially lifelong for unborn children.  A new scientific study has revealed that when mothers-to-be are exposed to the chemical during pregnancy their unborn children are also exposed (via the umbilical cord and later, breast milk) and that this perinatal exposure to PBDE is linked with a lifelong metabolic disorder affecting the liver of the unborn child throughout life making them vulnerable to insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Study overview

The study showed that environmentally relevant exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) through the umbilical cord and breast milk permanently changed liver metabolism in rats. The mother rats were fed enough PBDEs to cause concentrations in their fat similar to those found in humans living in big cities in the U.S.

“The pups never got exposed directly, yet it altered the way their liver works forever.  Normally when you remove the stressor, the organ will recover. But in this case, it’s not recovering. Epigenetic changes can persist in a row of cellular divisions and can even propagate through generations.”

-Dr. Alexander Suvorov, environmental toxicologist and associate professor of environmental health sciences, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst

What’s Next

Scientists will be studying the effects of perinatal exposure to the flame retardant chemical PBDE in humans in future studies. The new research could begin to tie prenatal exposure to flame retardants to an increased risk in adulthood of diabetes and other metabolic disorders, as well as heart disease.

The researchers will look for associations between PBDE levels in maternal blood and the activity of a protein known as mTOR in the baby’s placenta. mTOR is thought to mediate the changes in liver metabolism caused by PBDE exposure. Researchers also will evaluate the effects of PBDE exposure on childhood lipid levels by examining the lipid profiles and markers of liver injury in the children at age 8-9.

In the U.S., concentrations of PBDEs in human tissues is still increasing, even though the industry stopped using the flame retardants in 2013, five years after Europe phased out their use due to health concerns.


Journal Reference: Alexander Suvorov, Vladimir Naumov, Victoria Shtratnikova, Maria Logacheva, Alex Shershebnev, Haotian Wu, Evgeny Gerasimov, Anna Zheludkevich, Jonathan R Pilsner, Oleg Sergeyev. Rat liver epigenome programing by perinatal exposure to 2,2′,4′4′-tetrabromodiphenyl ether. Epigenomics, 2019; DOI: 10.2217/epi-2019-0315