The toxic ‘forever chemicals’ lurking in nearly half of the drinking water across America pose a much higher health risk to women than men, a shock study shows.
Scientists have been warning for years that tiny man-made PFAS chemicals found in thousands of household products can cause a host of diseases and cancers.
However, a recent study is the first to show PFAS affect men and women differently, posing a greater cancer risk to women.
Results from the study suggest women with a higher exposure to PFAS were twice as likely to report a previous melanoma diagnosis than women in the lowest group of exposure.
The study also found a link between PFAS and a past diagnosis of uterine cancer and women with higher exposure also had a marginal increase in odds of previous ovarian cancer.
David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, was not involved in the study but reviewed the findings and said more oversight into contaminated water is needed.
He said: ‘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.
‘Much more scrutiny is needed to ensure that chemicals that impact the endocrine system and change hormone levels are not contaminating our bodies.’
The map compiled by the US Geological Survey shows the number of PFAS detections across a sprawling number of sites nationwide between 2016 and 2021
The Environmental Working Group, an activist organization centered on environmental pollutants, mapped out the communities and military sites confirmed to have PFAS contamination
PFAS, referred to as ‘forever chemicals’, have been linked to birth defects and an increased risk of an array of cancers
Researchers did not provide a definitive reason as to why women were disproportionately impacted by environmental PFAS exposure, though they speculated it could be hormone-related, and they stressed more investigation into the associations is needed.
The results are particularly concerning because previous studies have shown a majority of Americans drink water straight from their tap that could be laced with chemicals.
PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals present in food packaging, clothes and thousands of other products in the US.
Because of their ubiquity, they leach into soil, drinking water, the air and food, exposing Americans to the toxins almost everywhere.
They’ve been deemed ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down in the environment or human body and have been linked to birth defects and an increased risk of an array of cancers.
PFAS substances are endocrine system-disrupting chemicals. This system is responsible for regulating the body’s hormones and all biological processes from conception into old age, including the development of the brain and nervous system and the growth and function of the reproductive system.
The ovaries and testes, as well as the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands are major components of the endocrine system.
Researchers said their study highlighted that across multiple types of tumors, people with a past cancer diagnosis had elevated levels of toxins in their body. Hormonally driven cancers, such as breast cancer, are often treated with hormone therapy, but exposure to endocrine-disrupting substances, such as PFAS, could make therapies less effective and cause disease progression and recurrence.
For the study, researchers analyzed data between 2005 and 2018 from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a program of studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the US.
Data was included from approximately 27,000 people and looked at concentrations of seven PFAS and 12 phenols/parabens, types of forever chemicals, in people’s blood and urine samples.
The study did not provide geographical information of the subjects.
However, a previous study by the US Geological Survey tested water sources from 716 private and public water sources across the country for PFAS and found 45 percent of drinking water sources contained at least one PFAS.
Based on the data, researchers concluded taps in densely populated urban locations generally had higher levels of PFAS than taps in rural areas of the country.
The greatest concentration was found in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Eastern seaboard and Central and Southern California.
Researchers for the recent study collected cases of self-reported diagnoses of melanoma and cancers of the thyroid, breast, ovaries, uterus, prostate and testicles in men and women over 20 years old.
Of the substances studied, they found certain PFAS and phenols/parabens were associated with higher rates of certain cancer diagnoses.
Previous melanoma diagnoses in women were seen in those exposed to six types of PFAS. Previous ovarian cancer was seen in women exposed to three types of PFAS and previous uterine cancer was associated with one PFAS.
Two other PFAS known as PFNA and PFUA had nearly double the odds of a previous melanoma diagnosis.
Of the substances studied, they found certain PFAS and phenols/parabens were associated with higher rates of certain cancer diagnoses
The study found no link between PFAS and previous diagnoses in men.
In the phenol- and paraben-exposed group of people, researchers observed a melanoma diagnosis in 20 men and 27 women and a thyroid cancer diagnosis in three men and nine women.
Prostate cancer was seen in 104 men and breast cancer was seen in 114 women.
Twenty women received an ovarian cancer diagnosis and 37 received a uterine cancer diagnosis.
Among the other PFAS-exposed group, melanoma was observed in 52 men and 39 women and thyroid cancer was seen in seven men and 28 women.
Thirty-five women had ovarian cancer, 51 had uterine cancer and 178 had breast cancer. Among the men, 199 had prostate cancer.
There were also racial differences. White women were more likely than Black women to be previously diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer and white men with PFAS exposure were more likely than Black men to have a previous prostate cancer diagnosis.
The study was published Monday in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology and led by researchers from University of California San Francisco, University of Southern California and University of Michigan.