PFAS Research

Abby Fleisch, MD, MPH, discusses PFAS and PFAS research in Maine.

Dr. Abby Fleisch Expands PFAS Research in Maine and Beyond

Abby Fleisch, MD, MPH, a pediatric endocrinologist at Maine Medical Center and faculty scientist in the Center for Interdisciplinary Population & Health Research, has been researching the health effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS across the lifespan.  She is immersed in PFAS research which is evident by the fact that she received not one, but three National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants in 2023 to advance this work.

Abby Fleisch, MD, MPH

Abby Fleisch, MD, MPH

PFAS in Central Maine

One of Dr. Fleisch’s NIH grants is well underway and occurring in central Maine. Dr. Fleisch and Dr. Rachel Criswell from Redington-Fairview General Hospital, were awarded a two-year NIH exploratory grant to look at exposure pathways and mental health impact of PFAS-contaminated biosolids (treated sewage sludge that meets the EPA pollutant and pathogen requirements for land application and surface disposal).  Drs. Fleisch and Criswell are working with a central Maine community that has been impacted by PFAS.  Enrollment began in September with town halls that included enrolling participants, and collecting data and blood draws. In addition, the research team has established a community advisory board which has helped with study material development such as the study questionnaire.  The board will continue to advise the study team and will meet quarterly throughout the study.

This work will help establish a cohort (a group of participants followed over a period of time) with PFAS exposure from biosolids, evaluate potential exposure pathways, and characterize associations with anxiety and people’s views on health risks and feelings of being stigmatized about PFAS exposure.

“We hope that our study will help to guide other communities affected by biosolids across the US,” said Dr. Fleisch. “We want to help these communities by generating exposure mitigation advice and interventions to build resilience.”

PFAS have been around since the 1940s, but only in recent years have they gained attention in the news both nationally and in Maine due to their potentially harmful health effects. PFAS are synthetic chemicals added to clothing, furniture, and carpets to make the items non-stick and stain-repellant. PFAS or “forever chemicals” don’t naturally break down, so they stay in our bodies for years and in the environment for decades, contaminating water and food.

PFAS and Long-term Health Effects

Dr. Fleisch’s other NIH awards are just getting started.  She is a Principal Investigator along with Dr. Emily Oken of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care on a five-year grant from NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This study will investigate the impact of PFAS on musculoskeletal health and cardiovascular disease among older adults in the Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study. The study will also examine the potential for lifestyle behaviors such as diet and physical activity to mitigate these health impacts. Notably there is little data currently on PFAS and cardiovascular disease — this work will be integral to adding to the current body of knowledge and guiding health advisories moving forward.

In her third grant this year, Dr. Fleisch is a Co-Investigator on a National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases research grant led by Dr. Jeffrey Driban at the University of Massachusetts. The overarching goal of the grant is to examine the extent to which PFAS exposure is associated with the development of osteoarthritis. Dr. Fleisch will specifically advise/assist the principal investigator and study team on study design, data analysis planning, and manuscript preparation in relation to the PFAS exposures.

“I am looking forward to conducting these studies,” Dr. Fleisch said.  “I hope our findings will help to inform health advisories as well as exposure reduction and health guidance for people who have been exposed.”