A car drives by the east tower at Maine Medical Center in Portland in March 2018. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Maine Medical Center said Monday that it has received $2.2 million to study whether certain chemicals commonly found in household items may be contributing to obesity in teenagers and potentially making them more susceptible to osteoporosis later in life.

The grant, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will study the effect of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and phthalates on teenagers.

PFAS are synthetic chemicals added to clothing, furniture and carpets to make them non-stick and stain-repellent.

Phthalates are added to personal care products such as shampoos and lotions to retain scents. They also are used to improve flexibility in plastics.

Studies in animals suggest that these classes of chemicals may interfere with common biological pathways and increase the risk of both high body fat and low bone mineral density, according to MMC. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones are less dense and more fragile.

“Adolescence is an important time when our bodies build up both bone and fat,” said principal investigator Dr. Abby Fleisch, a pediatric endocrinologist at MMC. “Few human studies have looked at how these chemicals in our environment could be impacting our fat accumulation and the health of our bones.”

The percentage of children and adolescents in the United States affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from 2015-2016 show that nearly one in five school-aged children and young people between 6 to 19 years old in the United States is obese, meaning they have too much body fat.

The 500 teens in the study have been enrolled since birth in Project Viva, a longitudinal research study of mothers and children in Eastern Massachusetts. A longitudinal study makes repeated observations of the same conditions either short or long term.

The study will test for PFAS in samples of the teens’ blood and for phthalates in their urine.

The researchers also will measure body fat and bone density using a special kind of X-ray machine.

Each child filled out food questionnaires that will help the research team investigate how much of the PFAS and phthalate exposure has come from diet and how much has come from the environment.

MMC said the hope is that this research could lead to ways to curb obesity and osteoporosis later in life.

The grant announcement comes one month after Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced the formation of a task force to study the impact of PFAS in Maine.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...