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MedStar Health researchers are using data to investigate the effects of environmental contaminants on human health. Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances or PFAS are a group of more than 12,000 chemicals used in a variety of commercial and consumer products. Sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are resistant to very high heat, grease, oil, and moisture. However, the same properties that give PFAS an edge in manufacturing also have the potential to impact the environment and have been linked to health concerns.
Although some PFAS use has declined in the United States over the last few years, these chemicals can stay in our bodies and the environment for decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the general population is still exposed to PFAS through drinking water, inhalation, ingestion, and ingestion of food that was in direct contact with PFAS-containing food wrappers.
Additionally, there is a growing body of research that suggests PFAS have negative effects on human health including:
For pregnant women, PFAS exposure may be related to low in infant birth weights and increased high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.
Because children are still developing, they may be more sensitive to the harmful effects of PFAS, and exposure has been linked to reducing the effectiveness of routine vaccinations in children.
Dr. Nawar Shara, in collaboration with principal investigator Mindi Messmer, M.S., a Georgetown graduate, and their research team of scientists from Keene State College and Springfield College, developed a novel approach for an ecological study to assess the effects of PFAS exposure on human health. The study compared the incidence of cancer in one community with known historical PFAS exposure to four carefully selected control populations in areas without known historical exposure, as well as the national incidence rate of cancer. The study team identified that the community with known PFAS exposure experienced an increased risk of the following cancers: thyroid, bladder, esophageal, and mesothelioma when compared to the national incidences. In addition, residents of the affected community experience increased risk of thyroid, prostate, colon, and all-cause cancers when compared with control populations.
Research projects such as these can help provide a clearer picture of how different risk factors may lead to adverse outcomes, such as cancer. Understanding regional PFAS levels and the impacts of those exposure profiles provides context to the patterns of chronic disease in adults and children across the United States. Research such as this contributes to our understanding of environmental risk factors for developing cancer. Just as we have learned that sun exposure leads to increased risk of skin cancer, and cigarette smoking significantly increases risks of lung cancer, we have confirmation that increased exposure to PFAS elevates risk for a variety of cancers.
If you are worried about PFAS in your surrounding area, there are things you can do:
There are options to test and treat water supplies for PFAS if you live in an area of high historical exposure. If you have concerns about PFAS exposure, you should speak to your healthcare provider. CDC ATSDR has developed a helpful guide to help you start a conversation. Together, you can determine if you are at risk for PFAS exposure and develop an action plan for reducing your exposure and monitoring for signs and symptoms of related health conditions.
Additional resources to learn more about PFAS include:
Contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800)-638-2772 if you have questions about the products you use in your home.
Environmental Health Insights, DOI: doi/full/10.1177/11786302221076707