Environmental contaminants interfere with our metabolism

We know that all humans are exposed to some mixture of contaminants through consumer products and contaminated food, air, and water, but how do we determine which ones interfere with our metabolism and compromise our health?

Scientists develop analytical methods to identify and measure the quantities of chemical compounds in people and in the environment. In conventional analytical approaches (targeted analysis), the scientists decide beforehand what compounds they are going to look for and use analytical standards (compounds in high purity) to develop their methods. Recent advances in analytical chemistry, and specifically in the field of high-resolution mass spectrometry, have enabled us to screen biological and environmental samples for a very broad spectrum of chemical compounds that would previously remain undetected with conventional techniques. Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique used to measure chemical compounds based on their mass and charge. As these techniques are applied in a non-targeted fashion, scientists do not need to decide beforehand what chemicals they are looking for.

Using this non-targeted analysis approach, we studied chemical exposures in pregnant women and their infants and found over 100 environmental contaminants, including many PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and plasticizers. We also found over 100 significant associations between environmental contaminants and internal metabolites, indicating that environmental contaminants interfere with our metabolism. One example is an association between PFAS and fatty acids in both the maternal and cord samples suggesting interactions between PFAS and fatty acid regulating proteins. This dysregulation in lipid metabolism can play a role in adverse health outcomes like diabetes.

In our study, we analyzed 295 maternal and 295 matched cord blood samples with our non-targeted analysis workflow and examined exposures to exogenous chemical compounds (manufactured chemicals) and endogenous metabolites (compounds naturally produced in the body). While it is well established that every person in the world is exposed to some mixture of environmental contaminants, the way these compounds interfere with our metabolism is still unknown. We therefore examined not only the presence of environmental contaminants in our samples but also their interplay with endogenous compounds as the latter can inform us about changes in metabolism and overall health.

Moving forward, we will explore these associations and understand their contributions to the development of diseases, such as diabetes. From a regulatory standpoint, our research findings suggest that it is crucial to reconsider the widespread use of PFAS in consumer products and remove them from applications that are deemed non-essential, such as in pizza boxes, food packaging, and clothing.

About the author

Dimitri Abrahamsson, MSc, PhD is an Environmental Chemist and a postdoctoral scholar with the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. Dimitri received his PhD in Environmental Chemistry from Stockholm University in Sweden. His PhD work focused on the partitioning and persistence of siloxanes in the environment. He recently received a K99/R00 award from NIH/NIEHS to continue his work on non-targeted analysis and develop new computational tools that will aid in the discovery of novel chemical compounds.

Co-authors on this paper are Dimitri Panagopoulos Abrahamsson, Aolin Wang, Ting Jiang, Miaomiao Wang, Adi Siddharth, Rachel Morello-Frosch, June-Soo Park, Marina Sirota, and Tracey J. Woodruff.