Researchers may have found the reason for hormone-related cancers in thousands of American women: “forever chemicals.”
These chemicals include per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), parabens, and phenols, and are often found in the environment — breaking down very slowly and eventually building up in people’s bodies.
Although known for being highly toxic, PFAS are used in industrial settings and found in thousands of everyday products, including food packaging, toilet paper, clothing, and cosmetics.
The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology on Sept. 18, found that women with previous cancer diagnoses had high levels of forever chemicals in their blood.
The team of researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and the University of Southern California discovered the connections between forever chemicals, melanoma, and cancers of the thyroid, breast, ovary, and uterus.
“These findings highlight the need to consider PFAS and phenols as whole classes of environmental risk factors for cancer risk in women,” Max Aung, senior author of the study and assistant professor of environmental health at USC Keck School of Medicine, said in a statement.
The research team reviewed data from 48,712 adults who participated in the 2005-2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The final sample sizes included 8,010 men and 8,686 women in the PFAS analysis and 5,084 men and 5,344 women in the phenol plus paraben analysis.
The authors found that prior ovarian and uterine cancer diagnoses were most common among white women with higher PFAS exposure. Black and Mexican American women were more likely to have a breast cancer diagnosis when overly exposed to phenols and parabens.
“Future studies should build on this work to explore intersecting social identities, such as immigrant status, educational attainment, and neighborhood factors, to better understand how to identify high-risk groups to strengthen prevention and intervention efforts,” Aung said.
Previous research by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that Black and Hispanic/Latino communities are most likely to be exposed to unsafe levels of PFAS in their water supplies.
The researchers linked the finding to the disproportionate amount of pollution sources near watersheds in those communities, including major manufacturers, airports, military bases, wastewater treatment plants, and landfills.
Following the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the Biden-Harris administration proposed the first-ever national drinking water standard for six PFAS. The proposal, announced in March, is part of President Joe Biden’s action plan to combat PFAS pollution.
While some may consider this a step in the right direction, thousands of other forever chemicals would remain federally unregulated if passed.
“One way to reduce exposures is for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, rather than one at a time,” said Tracey J. Woodruff, a University of California at San Francisco professor.
In the absence of a federal standard, states such as California, Oregon, and North Carolina adopted their own regulations. Major brands and retailers have restricted or eliminated the use of the chemicals in their products. IKEA, Victoria’s Secret, H&M, and Target are among those on board.
“As communities around the country grapple with PFAS contamination, policymakers should account for the results of this study as they develop a plan of action to reduce PFAS exposure,” Woodruff said.
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