PFAS could be impacting women suffering from cancer

There appears to be a clear link between PFAS, BPA exposures and a prior cancer diagnosis found in a large national study.

There appears to be a clear link between PFAS, BPA exposures and a prior cancer diagnosis found in a large US study.

Exposure to certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals may play a role in cancers of the breast, ovary, skin and uterus. Researchers have found that people who developed those cancers have significantly higher levels of these chemicals.

The study does not prove that exposure to chemicals like PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) and phenols (including BPA) led to these cancer diagnoses. However, it strongly signals that they may play a role and should be studied further.

The study showed that, particularly for women, higher exposure to PFDE had double the odds of a previous melanoma diagnosis. Women with higher exposure to two other long-chained PFAS compounds, PFNA and PFUA, had nearly double the odds of a prior melanoma diagnosis.

The study showed a link between PFNA, a prior diagnosis of uterine cancer and women with higher exposure to phenols. It included chemicals such as BPA (used in plastics) and 2,5-dichlorophenol (a chemical used in dyes and found as a by-product in wastewater treatment). These phenols were found to have odds of prior ovarian cancer diagnoses.

The study was conducted by researchers from UC San Francisco (UCSF), the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of Michigan. All three are part of a National Institutes of Health-funded Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers.

They used data from blood and urine samples from more than 10,000 people in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They investigated current exposure to phenols and PFAS in relation to previous cancer diagnoses. The study explored racial/ethnic disparities in these associations.

The study appears in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.

“These findings highlight the need to consider PFAS and phenols as whole classes of environmental risk factors for cancer risk in women,” said Max Aung, Ph.D. He was the senior author of the study who conducted the research while at the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. Aung is now an associate professor of environmental health at USC Keck School of Medicine.

PFAS are ubiquitous in the environment

PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they are resistant to breaking down and last for decades in the environment. They also remain in people’s systems anywhere from several months to years.

“These PFAS chemicals appear to disrupt hormone function in women. It is one potential mechanism that increases the odds of hormone-related cancers in women,” said Amber Cathey, Ph.D. She is a research faculty scientist at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health.

The study also identified racial differences. Associations between various PFAS and ovarian and uterine cancers were observed only among white women. At the same time, associations between a PFAS called MPAH and a phenol called BPF and breast cancer were observed only among non-white women.

Researchers say EPA should regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals

“This adds further evidence that supports policymakers developing action to reduce PFAS exposure,” said Tracey Woodruff, UCSF professor.  “Since PFAS make up thousands of chemicals, one way to reduce exposures is to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals. It would be a better approach instead of regulating the chemicals one at a time.”

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