Folate concentrations and serum perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substance concentrations in adolescents and adults in the USA (National Health and Nutrition Examination Study 2003-16): an observational study

Lancet Planet Health. 2023 Jun;7(6):e449-e458. doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(23)00088-8.


Background: Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of highly fluorinated aliphatic compounds, which are widely used in commercial applications, including food packaging, textiles, and non-stick cookware. Folate might counteract the effects of environmental chemical exposures. We aimed to explore the relationship between blood folate biomarker concentrations and PFAS concentrations.

Methods: This observational study pooled cross-sectional data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003 to 2016 cycles. NHANES is a population-based national survey that measures the health and nutritional status of the US general population every 2 years by means of questionnaires, physical examination, and biospecimen collection. Folate concentrations in red blood cells and in serum, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) concentrations in serum were examined. We used multivariable regression models to assess the percentage change in serum PFAS concentrations in relation to changes in folate biomarker concentrations. We additionally used models with restricted cubic splines to investigate the shape of these associations.

Findings: This study included 2802 adolescents and 9159 adults who had complete data on PFAS concentrations, folate biomarkers, and covariates, were not pregnant, and had never had a cancer diagnosis at the time of the survey. The mean age was 15·4 years (SD 2·3) for adolescents and 45·5 years (17·5) for adults. The proportion of male participants was slightly higher in adolescents (1508 [54%] of 2802 participants) than in adults (3940 [49%] of 9159 participants). We found negative associations between red blood cell folate concentrations and serum concentrations of PFOS (percentage change for a 2·7 fold-increase in folate level -24·36%, 95% CI -33·21 to -14·34) and PFNA (-13·00%, -21·87 to -3·12) in adolescents, and PFOA (-12·45%, -17·28 to -7·35), PFOS (-25·30%, -29·67 to -20·65), PFNA (-21·65%, -26·19 to -16·82), and PFHxS (-11·70%, -17·32 to 5·70) in adults. Associations for serum folate concentrations and PFAS were in line with those found for red blood cell folate levels, although the magnitude of the effects was lower. Restricted cubic spline models suggested linearity of the observed associations, particularly for associations in adults.

Interpretation: In this large-scale, nationally representative study, we found consistent inverse associations for most examined serum PFAS compounds in relation to folate concentrations measured in either red blood cells or serum among both adolescents and adults. These findings are supported by mechanistic in-vitro studies that show the potential of PFAS to compete with folate for several transporters implicated in PFAS toxicokinetics. If confirmed in experimental settings, these findings could have important implications for interventions to reduce the accumulated PFAS body burden and mitigate the related adverse health effects.

Funding: United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biomarkers
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environmental Pollutants*
  • Female
  • Fluorocarbons*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • Pregnancy
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • perfluorooctane sulfonic acid
  • perfluorohexanesulfonic acid
  • perfluorooctanoic acid
  • perfluoro-n-nonanoic acid
  • Fluorocarbons
  • Biomarkers