Chemical toxicity in placenta

The potential effects of firefighting chemicals on miscarriage, pregnancy complications and fertility is the focus of a new research project at Flinders University.

Inspired by the concerns of SA metropolitan firefighters, Professor Claire Roberts has received a Flinders Foundation Health Seed Grant to assess the toxicity of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (also known as “PFAS”) chemicals in human placenta.

These manufactured chemicals are used to make products that resist heat, stains, grease and water, including foams used for firefighting, food containers, make-up and personal care products and cleaning products.

All human populations on the planet who have been tested have detectable amounts of various PFAS in their blood. It’s known that exposure to high levels of some of these chemicals is associated with birth defects, but less is known about adverse health effects, if any, resulting from moderate occupational exposure to the chemicals.

“This work has been inspired by the concerns of SAMFS firefighters around effects on their reproductive potential,” Professor Roberts explains.

“Female firefighters are concerned about risks to fertility and pregnancy, while male firefighters are also concerned about their fertility and risk for fathering babies with birth defects.”

Using human placental cultures, Professor Roberts’ team will examine effects of the chemicals on placental cell behaviour to provide important advances in understanding the impacts of PFAS on placental development and function.

Data collected will contribute to establishing ‘safe’ PFAS levels in exposed individuals that could be used to inform clinical management of individuals at risk of PFAS toxicity, and may also lead to evaluating effective therapies to combat adverse effects.

“This project will yield new information on the effects of PFAS on human placental function… and anyone exposed to PFAS chemicals before and during pregnancy will be empowered to make personal decisions about their exposure,” Professor Roberts says.

The project will run until early 2022 and will also include focus groups and interviews with female and male firefighters from across South Australia.


Research category:  Maternal & Infant Health

Project title: Assessment of PFAS toxicity in human placenta

Lead researcher: Professor Claire Roberts

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