In an era where we’re surrounded by an array of chemicals in our everyday lives, the presence of “forever chemicals” has emerged as a growing concern for public health. What makes these chemicals so concerning is their remarkable persistence in both the environment and the human body. But what’s even more alarming is the emerging evidence suggesting a connection between higher levels of PFAS and women’s health issues.
Researchers from the University of Southern California found significantly higher levels of these chemicals in women with breast, ovarian, skin, and uterine cancers.
In this article, we’ll delve into this critical topic, examining what forever chemicals are, their sources, the rising incidence of these cancers, scientific studies, and steps individuals can take to protect themselves.
Understanding Forever Chemicals: What Are PFAS?
Before we explore the connection between forever chemicals and women’s health, it’s essential to understand what these chemicals are. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, represent a group of synthetic chemicals used extensively in various industries and everyday products. These chemicals have earned the title “forever chemicals” because they are incredibly resistant to breaking down in the environment.
PFAS are present in numerous products we encounter daily, making exposure almost inevitable. Non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, cleaning products and even food packaging are among the common sources. Additionally, industrial waste and contaminated water sources contribute to the presence of PFAS in the environment.
The Rising Incidence of Breast, Skin, and Ovarian Cancers
Breast, skin, and ovarian cancers are prevalent health concerns for women worldwide. While genetics and lifestyle choices play significant roles in cancer risk, there is growing concern about environmental factors contributing to these diseases.
According to recent research, exposure to PFAS may increase a person’s risk for certain cancers, particularly “hormonally driven” cancers in women, such as breast, skin, and ovarian cancers. A study found that women with higher levels of PFAS in their blood had double the odds of developing breast cancer compared to women with lower levels of PFAS.
A study that used data from blood and urine samples from more than 10,000 people revealed that women who had higher levels of exposure to PFDE, a long-chained PFAS compound, were twice as likely to have a previous melanoma diagnosis.
A nested case-control study of serum PFAS concentrations and ovarian and endometrial cancers in the PLCO Cancer Screening Trial found that higher levels of PFAS were associated with an increased risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.
The Broader Health Impact of Forever Chemicals
Beyond their potential role in cancer, PFAS exposure has been linked to a host of other health issues. The following are some of the health effects that have been associated with PFAS exposure:
- Changes in cholesterol and liver enzyme levels.
- Small changes in infant birth weight
- Changes in the immune system and response to certain vaccines
- Increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
- Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility
- Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioural changes
- Increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of different PFAS, and research is ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects. While research on the health effects of PFAS is an evolving area of study, reducing exposure to PFAS in combination with healthy lifestyle habits can reduce the risk of adverse health outcomes.
Sources of PFAS exposure and how to avoid them?
Human exposure to PFAS occurs through various pathways. To avoid them the best we can, it’s crucial to understand where and how we encounter these potentially harmful chemicals. Here are the primary sources of PFAS exposure:
- Inhalation of Contaminated Air or Dust
PFAS can become airborne and settle in the form of dust particles. Breathing in contaminated air or dust is a common route of exposure, especially in areas near industrial sites or locations with historical PFAS use. It’s worth investigating air quality before moving to a new town or neighbourhood. Here is a very useful website.
- Consumption of Contaminated Food
PFAS can enter the food supply chain in multiple ways. It may be present in food grown in soil contaminated with PFAS, or it can migrate into food through PFAS-containing packaging materials. This includes everything from microwave popcorn bags to fast-food wrappers. Try to avoid buying food in plastic packaging and never reheat food in plastic containers.
- Cooking with PFAS-Containing Cookware
Non-stick cookware, which often contains forever chemicals, poses a potential risk during cooking. High temperatures can cause the release of these particles and their absorption into food, especially when using older or damaged cookware. Choose ceramic or cast iron cookware instead.
- Consumption of Fish with High PFAS Levels
Fish from contaminated water bodies can accumulate PFAS in their flesh. Several studies have found high levels of PFAS in freshwater fish, such as bass, catfish, cod and shrimps. The exposure to chemical pollutants in freshwater fish across the United States and Europe is an environmental urgency and must be addressed by governments.
- Drinking PFAS-Contaminated Water
Drinking water contaminated with PFAS is a direct route of exposure. This is particularly dangerous in areas near industrial facilities or military sites where PFAS contamination has affected local water supplies. Invest in a water filtration system to remove contaminants from your drinking water. This can also help to reduce exposure to other harmful substances like heavy metals and chlorine.
- Use of Consumer Products with PFAS
Many consumer products, from stain-resistant carpets to waterproof clothing, contain PFAS. Contact with these products can lead to skin absorption or ingestion if, for example, children put their hands in their mouths after touching PFAS-treated materials. Opt for PFAS-free alternatives in products such as cosmetics, food packaging, and cleaning supplies. Being informed about the products you use daily can make a substantial difference.
The connection between forever chemicals like PFAS and the rising incidence of breast, skin, and ovarian cancers is a topic of increasing concern. While more research is needed to establish definitive links, the accumulating evidence cannot be ignored. Women, in particular, must be proactive in safeguarding their health by minimizing PFAS exposure through informed choices and lifestyle adjustments. As we continue to learn more about the impact of forever chemicals on women’s health, it is crucial to stay informed and work collectively towards a cleaner, healthier environment for all.
Don’t miss a beat in the fast-paced world of data-driven healthcare! Subscribe to our newsletter for expert insights, resources, must-attend events and industry updates.
Sign up for our newsletter here