Harmful "forever" chemicals are widespread in the environment, and new research hints they pose a particular health risk to women.
A new study suggests women who are exposed to higher levels of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, are more likely to have been diagnosed with certain cancers. Exposure is also linked to liver damage, fertility issues, high blood pressure and other health conditions.
PFAS is a category of more than 15,000 compounds found in everyday household items, including shampoo, dental floss, cosmetics, nonstick cookware, food packaging, clothing and more. PFAS compounds can find their way into water and food supplies. They are called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down and can last for decades in the environment. PFAS also remain in people's bodies for months to years.
"Previous diagnoses of [the potentially fatal form of skin cancer] melanoma, ovarian and uterine cancers in women were associated with higher exposure levels to certain PFAS chemicals," said study author Max Aung, an assistant professor of environmental health at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.
PFAS chemicals may increase cancer risk in several ways, he said.
"Experimental animal and [test tube] models indicate that PFAS exposure can affect the immune system, [hormonal] system, liver function and other bodily processes," Aung said. They may disrupt hormone function in women, increasing the chances of developing hormone-related cancers in women.
For the study, the researchers reviewed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for 2005 to 2018. The sample included more than 48,000 people who were asked about previous cancer diagnoses. Their responses were compared to PFAS exposures.
Women with higher exposure to a PFAS known as PFDE were twice as likely to report a previous melanoma diagnosis as those in the lowest quarter. Women with higher exposure to two other PFAS compounds, PFNA and PFUA, had nearly double the odds of a prior melanoma diagnosis.
Researchers also found a link between PFNA and a prior diagnosis of uterine cancer.
In addition, women who were exposed to higher levels of phenols such as Bisphenol A (BPA) used in plastics and 2,5-dichlorophenol, a chemical used in dyes, were more likely to report a prior ovarian cancer diagnosis, the study showed. 2,5 dichlorophenol is also a byproduct of wastewater treatment.
Researchers found no link between blood markers of PFAS and previous cancer diagnoses in men.
They did, however, find some racial differences.
White women exposed to PFAS were more likely than Black women to have a previous diagnosis of ovarian and uterine cancer.
White men with PFAS exposure were more likely than Black men to have a previous prostate cancer diagnosis, the study found.
Unless and until these chemicals are better regulated or banned at a federal level, Aung said it's important to take steps to lower your exposure.
"On an individual level, you can reduce exposures by avoiding certain products such as nonstick cookware and food packaging containers," he said. "There are also some water filters that can help reduce PFAS contamination in drinking water."
The study was published Monday in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., reviewed the findings.
"This study adds even more evidence to a growing body of scientific research linking exposure to common man-made chemical contaminants with higher risk of developing cancer," he said. "Much more scrutiny is needed to ensure that chemicals that impact the endocrine system and change hormone levels are not contaminating our bodies."
Learn more about how PFAS can affect health at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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