The report, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, states that eliminating chemicals that were used to make non-stick coating, like Teflon, have stymied more than 118,000 low-weight births as well as brain damage related to it. This finding was derived after a thorough examination of blood samples from women who had just given birth as part of a national health study.
Earlier studies have long connected the chemicals, which were known for making sure food does not stick to the pans, with hypertension, birth defects, and lower-than-average weights. These points were the key issues behind the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) stewardship program on the reduction of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) -- one of the main components in non-stick materials -- as well as subsequent efforts to eliminate production in 2014.
Researchers assess that the sharp dip in chemically-linked births have helped save the country at least $13.7 billion in health costs caused by long-term hospital stays for infants and the continued treatment for the cognitive damage sustained. This figure also accounts for future gains made when the children accomplish higher education levels and gain employment.
"The evidence is overwhelming that the EPA-industry accord to phase out chemicals once used in nonstick coatings has been a major success in protecting children's health," according to lead investigator and epidemiologist Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who is also an associate professor at NYU. "[The] policy designed to lessen human exposure has spared thousands of newborns from damage to their health and saved U.S. taxpayers over a billion dollars in unnecessary health care costs."
According to the research team, the essential risk to babies and pregnant women before 2006 were from exposure to PFOA. The chemical does not occur naturally in the environment and can accumulate in the "blood of marine mammals and in most humans exposed to them." A study indicates PFOA has a long half-life (rate of elimination from the body) after a person is exposed to it, and it is able to persist in the environment. Research has also shown that a nanogram increase in PFOA per milliliter of blood can result in an 18.9 reduction in birth weight. (Related: Chemicals From Teflon Found in Human Breast Milk.)
While the agreement between the EPA and the industry has greatly decreased PFOA levels in the blood, Trasande warns about the products that have already been sold, and are possibly still in use, before the ban came into place. Additionally, health impacts for exposure to perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), the chemical substitute for PFOA, are obscure. Both PFOA and PFC are classified as endocrine disruptors, a group of chemicals that may interfere with normal hormone and brain function. Substances under this group have been observed to cause adverse effects on both humans and wildlife, according to studies.
For the study, researchers looked at PFOA levels in blood samples of people who took the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) -- which has assembled data about the prevalence and risk factors to chronic illnesses through an annual survey of five thousand volunteers. Of the survey, they found that blood PFOA levels in women ages 18 to 49 steadily increased from 2003 to 2008, with the highest average level noted to be 3.5 nanograms per milliliter. This pattern, however, switched in 2009, a couple of years after the agreement was imposed, and danger levels of PFOA dipped from an average of 2.8 nanograms per milliliter to 1.6 nanograms per milliliter by 2014.
The level of low-weight births from PFOA that were potentially averted was run through a computer model and was used to calculate potential health costs and lost income that would result if PFOA was still used. The results showed a significant drop in the number of low-birth babies due to PFOA exposure: from 17,501 births in 2008, it plummeted to 1,491 in 2014.
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