PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are widespread in the environment. Dubbed forever chemicals because they don’t break down in nature, they’re common in a variety of household and personal care products and have been detected in soil, air, people, hundreds of species of wildlife, and in nearly half of U.S. tap water. A new study finds they may also play a role in cancer development in women.
Research recently published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology examined levels of PFAS, parabens, and phenols among women with a previous cancer diagnosis. Using data from more than 10,000 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the team found that women who have had breast, ovarian, skin, or uterine cancer had significantly higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies. The researchers say while the findings don’t prove the chemicals in question caused these cancers, the study warrants more research into the topic.
Dr. Max Aung, senior author who conducted the research at the UCSF Program of Reproductive Health and the Environment, says, “These findings highlight the need to consider PFAS and phenols as whole classes of environmental risk factors for cancer risk in women.”
The study utilized data from blood and urine samples and focused on chemicals thought to disrupt hormone function in women. The researchers found that particularly among women, higher levels of the PFAS compound PFDE was linked with twice the odds of a prior melanoma diagnosis, while two others – PFNA and PFUA – were associated with nearly twice the chances of such a diagnosis.
Meanwhile, higher levels of PFNA were associated with greater odds of a uterine cancer diagnosis, while high exposure to phenols including BPA and 2,5-dichlorophenol (often found in dyes) were linked with a greater likelihood of having ovarian cancer in the past.
Dr. Amber Cathey, lead author and research faculty scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health says, “These PFAS chemicals appear to disrupt hormone function in women, which is one potential mechanism that increases odds of hormone-related cancers in women.”
The team also investigated whether or not there were racial differences, finding that the link between several PFAS and ovarian and uterine cancers was only observed in white women, while a link between breast cancer and the PFAS MPAH and the phenol BPF was observed only in non-white women.
The researchers say their findings show there may be a need for policies limiting PFAS exposure. One way to do this, they say, is having the EPA regulate the whole PFAS class of chemicals, instead of one at a time.
Past research by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that humans are far from the only species impacted by forever chemicals. The chemicals have been found in at least 330 species worldwide. That includes everything from polar bears to house cats. You can read more on that here.