Health Effects of PFAS Exposure on Mothers and Their Babies

Pregnant Rabbits and Drinking Water: How We’re Studying the Health Effects of PFAS Exposure on Mothers and Their Babies




The Duke PFAS research team has well-documented the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in drinking water, household dust, and human serum around North Carolina and the United States. In Pittsboro, NC, our research has determined that PFAS levels in human blood is 2-4 times higher than the average national exposure.

As a pregnancy and child development scientist, I want to know: what does this exposure mean for the health of a mother and her child during pregnancy? This may seem like a very specific time, but it is one of the most critical periods for the health of both mother and child. During pregnancy, a mother’s body is put through incredible changes and stresses, leaving her at higher risk for developing both immediate and long-term diseases. Meanwhile, her baby is growing and developing, at which time the foundation of its lifetime health begins.

Consequently, any environmental exposure that occurs during this period might put the mother and baby at risk for health complications. And that’s where my research project comes in – I study how PFAS exposure during pregnancy affects the health of mom and her baby. To do this, I use a rabbit model. Animal research allows us to understand health effects directly resulting from an exposure, and for this research project, we can make definitive conclusions about how PFAS affects the health of the animal. It should be noted that we are careful about the way we translate the results from animal exposure to human effects, however, these experiments do give us important clues about how the exposure may be affecting human health and provides evidence about PFAS affects a living organism.

One of the most common questions I get is, “why use rabbits?” First, I can attest that it is not because they breed easily (they don’t). In reality, rabbits are quite difficult to work with – they are fragile (they can break their own backs with one strong kick of the legs), temperamental (they stomp loudly when frustrated), and large (take that little bunny you’re picturing and triple the size). Regardless, we chose rabbits because they are commonly used in development studies because their pregnancies share characteristics with human pregnancies, making them an ideal animal model for our research question.

Throughout our study, female rabbits either received drinking water with either no PFAS (controls) or a mixture of PFAS mimicking Pittsboro drinking water (exposed). All rabbits were bred after a week after exposure began, and we confirmed pregnancies with ultrasounds. Throughout the study, we measured maternal blood pressure, recorded sizes and weights of mothers and babies, and evaluated organ function through blood tests, weight measurements, and examination of the tissue itself. We have been working with the rabbits since August 2020, and we are currently analyzing data and finishing tissue experiments in the lab.

We expect to have all experimental results by August 2021, when we plan to submit our findings for publication in a scientific journal and share them with affected communities. We hope that this research will help us to understand how PFAS exposure might be affecting pregnancies occurring in Pittsboro, NC, and may influence PFAS safety guidelines to help protect the health of mothers and their babies.

Keep up to date on future work out of our lab!  Publications about PFAS can be found here, and please consider signing up for our newsletter here.

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