Being exposed to flame retardants could alter the genetic code in sperm that could lead to major health defects in offsprings, warned a new study.

This is the first study ever to investigate how polybrominated biphenyl-153 also known as PBB153- the primary chemical component of the flame retardant FireMaster affects paternal reproduction.

About five decades ago, nearly 6.5 million Michigan residents got exposed to PBB153 when FireMaster was accidentally sent to the state grain mills where it reached the food supply. And in the following decades, several health conditions including cancers, skin discoloration, headache, dizziness, and joint pain have been associated with the exposure.

And more strikingly, the children born to those exposed to the fire retardant experienced several health problems including hernia or buildup in the scrotum in boys and a higher chance of miscarriage or stillbirth among adult daughters.

However, it has remained unclear how the chemical exposure could have impacted genes passed from a father who was exposed to the fire retardant.

"It is still a relatively new idea that a man's exposures prior to conception can impact the health of his children. Most studies where a toxic effect is observed in children look only to the mothers and the same has been true of studies conducted on PBB153," study author Katherine Gresson, and environmental health science doctoral student in Charles Easley's lab at UGA's College of Public Health and Regenerative Bioscience Center told MedicalXpress.

Experts at the UGA and Emory University used a unique approach to demonstrate how PBB153 influenced sperm cells. Typically, studies are mostly epidemiological or observational in nature. But in this study, the researchers used an approach that let them mimic the known blood exposure levels of the chemical in a lab environment.

Key Findings:

  • PBB153 is responsible for genetic changes to the DNA in sperm and affects the way genes are turned off or on
  • The chemical turned on genes in sperm which should be turned off
  • This might explain some of the endocrine-related health conditions observed in kids of people exposed to the flame retardant
  • Their new approach can be used to better understand the impact of other environmental exposures on reproduction including accidental exposures to toxic substances

The researchers hope that their work will lead to more studies that will explain why there is an effect of environmental exposure in human populations.

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