Prenatal exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and associations with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder in children

Thea S. Skogheim*, Kjell Vegard F. Weyde, Heidi Aase, Stephanie M. Engel, Pål Surén, Merete G. Øie, Guido Biele, Ted Reichborn-Kjennerud, Anne Lise Brantsæter, Line S. Haug, Azemira Sabaredzovic, Bonnie Auyeung, Gro D. Villanger

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Prenatal exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may be a risk factor for neurodevelopmental deficits and disorders, but evidence is inconsistent. 

Objectives: We investigated whether prenatal exposure to PFAS were associated with childhood diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Methods: This study was based on the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study and included n = 821 ADHD cases, n = 400 ASD cases and n = 980 controls. Diagnostic cases were identified by linkage with the Norwegian Patient Registry. In addition, we used data from the Medical Birth Registry of Norway. The study included the following PFAS measured in maternal plasma sampled mid-pregnancy: Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA), perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnDA), perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), perfluoroheptanesulfonic acid (PFHpS), and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Relationships between individual PFAS and ADHD or ASD diagnoses were examined using multivariable adjusted logistic regression models. We also tested for possible non-linear exposure-outcome associations. Further, we investigated the PFAS mixture associations with ASD and ADHD diagnoses using a quantile-based g-computation approach. 

Results: Odds of ASD was significantly elevated in PFOA quartile 2 [OR = 1.71 (95% CI: 1.20, 2.45)] compared to quartile 1, and PFOA appeared to have a non-linear, inverted U-shaped dose-response relationship with ASD. PFOA was also associated with increased odds of ADHD, mainly in quartile 2 [OR = 1.54 (95% CI: 1.16, 2.04)] compared to quartile 1, and displayed a non-linear relationship in the restricted cubic spline model. Several PFAS (PFUnDA, PFDA, and PFOS) were inversely associated with odds of ADHD and/or ASD. Some of the associations were modified by child sex and maternal education. The overall PFAS mixture was inversely associated with ASD [OR = 0.76 (95% CI: 0.64, 0.90)] as well as the carboxylate mixture [OR = 0.79 (95% CI: 0.68, 0.93)] and the sulfonate mixture [OR = 0.84 (95% CI: 0.73, 0.96)]. 

Conclusion: Prenatal exposure to PFOA was associated with increased risk of ASD and ADHD in children. For some PFAS, as well as their mixtures, there were inverse associations with ASD and/or ADHD. However, the inverse associations reported herein should not be interpreted as protective effects, but rather that there could be some unresolved confounding for these relationships. The epidemiologic literature linking PFAS exposures with neurodevelopmental outcomes is still inconclusive, suggesting the need for more research to elucidate the neurotoxicological potential of PFAS during early development.

Original languageEnglish
Article number111692
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Research
Early online date19 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


  • attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • father and child cohort study (MoBa)
  • medical birth registry of Norway (MBRN)
  • per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
  • the Norwegian mother


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