New Study: Exposure to Plastic Increases the Odds of These 3 Cancers

Updated: Oct. 25, 2023

Examine that nutrition label—and that packaging: Research from some of the nation's top universities reveals alarming associations between everyday chemical exposure and hormone-related cancers.

The potential dangers of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have become increasingly apparent in recent studies, raising pressing health concerns. Just within the last year, a study from the US Geological Survey found that these chemicals are present in nearly half of our tap water.

Further amplifying these concerns, research from the University of Notre Dame found that commonly used fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers, which house everything from household cleaners to personal care products and food packaging, tested positive for PFAS. The study also demonstrated that these harmful chemicals could migrate from the containers into the food they store.

Adding to this mounting evidence, a combined study by the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and the University of Michigan, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology in September 2023, suggests a potential connection between PFAS and hormone-related cancers in women, emphasizing the need for both further study and regulatory action.

The details of the study

With support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the study analyzed data from over 10,000 adults who participated in the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2018. It found that women diagnosed with melanoma, ovarian, or uterine cancer exhibited elevated concentrations of PFAS and phenols in their bloodstream. Notably, the chemical measurements were taken after the cancer diagnoses, pointing to an association but not definitively proving a causal link between chemical exposure and cancer.

Max Aung, PhD, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the division of environmental health at USC highlighted the significance of the findings, stating in a press release, “These findings show that PFAS and phenols are potential environmental risk factors for cancer risk in women. Our study can be used to help prioritize which chemicals to investigate and mitigate exposure to as we continue working to reduce cancer risk.”

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The chemical culprits

PFAS and phenols are virtually omnipresent in our surroundings. PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their durability, are present in a range of items from nonstick cookware and cosmetics to waterproof attire. Phenols, with bisphenol-A (BPA) as a prime example commonly found in food packaging, water bottles, and toys, are just as pervasive. The widespread nature of these chemicals is indeed worrisome.

Amber Cathey, PhD, MPH from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, illuminated the potential dangers: “These PFAS and phenol chemicals appear to disrupt hormone function in women, which is one potential mechanism that increases the odds of hormone-related cancers in women.”

The researchers found that women previously diagnosed with melanoma showed elevated levels of various PFAS chemicals, including perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDE), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUA), and benzophenone-3 (BP3). They also had higher concentrations of specific phenols like 2,5-dichlorophenol (DCP25) and 2,4-dichlorophenol (DCP24). Those with a history of ovarian cancer often exhibited increased levels of DCP25, BPA, and BP3. Meanwhile, women with uterine cancer generally had more of the PFNA chemical.

Notably, there’s a clear disparity in chemical exposure based on ethnicity. For instance, Mexican American and other Hispanic women showed a higher likelihood of past breast or uterine cancer linked to certain chemicals, particularly compared to different demographics.

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The road ahead: Research and regulation

The research sheds light on areas that urgently require policy intervention. Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH from UCSF, emphasized the following: “Since PFAS make up thousands of chemicals, one way to reduce exposures is for EPA to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, rather than one at a time.” As regulatory bodies deliberate on these findings, the hope is that the study spurs further in-depth research on the connection between chemical exposures and cancer.

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