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children and PFAS
PFAS are found in many common household items and found in our blood.

Geiger to assess effects of some chemicals on children’s sleep

Multiple studies have shown that children who regularly get an adequate amount of sleep have improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health. Not getting enough sleep can lead to high blood pressure, obesity and depression. An Illinois researcher wants to help mitigate those sleep issues. 

Kinesiology and Community Health assistant professor Sarah Geiger is planning to assess how the exposure to certain chemicals while in the womb affects child sleep later in life and can lead to poorer health outcomes. Geiger’s study is funded by an R03 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) component dedicated to environmental health research. In the grant application, Geiger writes that “the potential for prenatal exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) to adversely impact children’s health is a growing public health issue.” As Geiger explains, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are EDCs found in many common household items and found in our blood.

“They're so pervasive in terms of products,” said Geiger, who investigates environmental pollutants and chronic disease risk factors, including sleep problems, among children. “Studies have shown them to be found in foods (and) they're notorious for these non-stick surfaces, but that's really just one of so many types of things they're in. Plastic water bottles, plastic fast food containers. They're even in biomedical devices and things like IV bags and makeup, all sorts of cosmetics, nail polish.”

Geiger said her study is looking at the pregnant mom’s concentrations of those chemicals in her blood, and then looking at outcomes in children.

“We're measuring her levels as a proxy of what they're being exposed to,” Geiger said. “The idea is that developmental exposure in the womb to those chemicals that their mother has been exposed to is somehow altering their development and manifesting later as sleep problems. What we're really interested in is looking at the association between the two. Are moms with higher levels of these chemicals in their blood more likely to have children who have poorer sleep quality? And if so, then we can think about maybe what is the mechanism that is causing that to happen?”

Geiger added that the study is not only looking at how chemical exposure in the womb affects child sleep later on, but also how stress and depression and other factors during pregnancy can affect child's sleep later on. The study is important, Geiger said, because sleep, or the lack of it, is a predictor for health. Lack of sleep for a child can lead them to be unfocused and unproductive. And a lack of sleep in childhood is predictive of sleep issues in adulthood, she said, adding that sleep problems in adulthood cost the U.S. billions of in health care.

Another reason this research is important is how long certain PFAS can stay in a person’s body.

“They are sometimes called forever chemicals; they have an extremely long half-life compared to other types of endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” Geiger said. “The half-life might be like five years. Let's say you have a certain level of this one chemical in your blood, after five years, half of it would have been metabolized or excreted from your body. To give you a comparison, like BPA (bisphenol A), another common endocrine-disrupting chemical, the half life is more like five hours.”

As important as the research is, Geiger is realistic that studies like hers and others are not likely to force companies to limit their use of PFAS.

“These are extremely powerful market forces … I would like to think that all of the research combined on sleep and other things may apply some pressure, but—and I do think that the end goal is to try to remove or limit these types of chemicals if they are harmful—but that's much easier said than done. It's a pretty difficult task. 

“There's this push and pull with just the way the U.S. approaches chemical exposures. We don't have a very proactive or cautious approach to it. In fact, quite the opposite. And so people in the area that I work in, we're constantly having to chase down these individual chemicals and show that this is not safe for kids, or for anybody. And then–maybe then it'll be replaced with, as I said, typically another chemical, and you do the same thing.”

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