A woman applies lipstick while outside.Share on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new study looks at forever chemicals and potential cancer risks.
  • Researchers looked at chemicals found in plastics and personal care products such as poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
  • These chemicals don’t easily break down and can remain in the body for an extended period of time.

A new study has found that people with cancer have significantly higher levels of forever chemicals in their bodies.

The trend was most pronounced among women, particularly those who developed melanoma.

The researchers say exposure to certain chemicals, including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), parabens, and phenols, may contribute to hormone-related cancers of the breast, ovary, skin, and uterus.

These chemicals, commonly found in plastics and personal care products, have been dubbed “forever chemicals,” as they aren’t easily broken down and can remain in the body for months to years.

They have the potential to disrupt hormone function and need to be considered an environmental risk factor for cancer, according to a report, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology September 18.

The study adds to prior evidence revealing the carcinogenic effects of PFAS chemicals, Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, MD MPH, Chief of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Northwell Health, said.

“The body of scientific literature on these chemicals is growing steadily, and there is already good evidence on certain types of cancers,” Spaeth told Healthline.

The researchers evaluated blood and urine samples from people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The research team investigated the concentrations of seven PFAS and 12 phenols and parabens.

They also looked at self-reported diagnosis of melanoma along with cancers of the thyroid, breast, ovary, uterus, and prostate.

To evaluate sex-specific relationships between forever chemicals and cancer diagnoses, they organized the data based on sex.

The final sample sizes included 8,010 men and 8,686 women in the PFAS analysis and 5,084 men and 5,344 women in the phenol plus paraben analysis.

They found certain compounds were linked to increased risk of melanoma diagnoses in women, but not in men.

They found that increases in PFAS compounds — specifically, PFDE, PFNA, and PFUA — were linked to a 2.07, 1.72, and 1.76 greater likelihood of previous melanoma diagnosis in women.

Heightened levels of PFNA were linked to greater odds of having uterine cancer and elevated PFUA was marginally associated with ovarian cancer.

Elevated DCP25, a type of phenol, was associated with reproductive cancer diagnoses, too.

Higher levels of other parabens were associated with greater odds of certain cancers. For example, higher levels of BPA and BP3 were associated with increased odds of previous ovarian cancer. Meanwhile, higher levels of BP3, DCP25, and DCP24 were associated with increased odds of previous melanoma.

The study also found that the relationship between forever chemical levels and cancer diagnosis was inflected by race.

Previous ovarian and uterine cancer diagnoses was more common among white women with higher PFAS exposure.

For Black and Mexican American women, those with heightened exposure to certain phenols and parabens were more likely to have a previous breast cancer diagnosis.

Scott Bartell, PhD, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, said it’s difficult to attribute the cancers to PFAS exposure and it cannot be ruled out that cancer treatment may have contributed to PFAS blood concentrations.

There’s also a chance the pattens identified could be “explained by random variation, rather than PFAS causing the cancers,” Bartell said.

It’s often not clear why certain people develop cancer.

Genetics play a role, as do age, gender, and modifiable factors like smoking, diet, and exercise.

Growing evidence suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), like PFAS and phenols, disrupt hormone function, likely also contribute to the development of certain hormone-mediated cancers.

“There is good evidence from other studies that PFAS exposures can cause cancer in humans, particularly for PFOA. And more evidence from rodent studies that a variety of PFAS chemicals can induce tumors or cancers, at least at high exposures,” said Bartell.

Forever chemicals may impact how much estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones circulate in the body, studies have found.

Previous reports have identified hormone disruption as a key characteristic of carcinogenesis.

“For many cancers — including breast and prostate — the endocrine system can have an important role in cancer occurrence. So, it is unsurprising that EDCs, such as PFAS, may have a role in those cancers,” Spaeth said.

Few studies have investigated the association between the presence of these chemicals in people’s bodies and hormone-mediated cancer outcomes, the study said.

Identifying environmental factors, such as forever chemicals, may help us prevent and treat many types of cancer, the researchers suspect.

For example, people who are at high risk of cancer could be coached to limit their exposure to environmental factors to help lower their risk.

It isn’t easy to completely avoid forever chemicals.

As Spaeth said, every person in the United States and Europe, and most other regions, already contain PFAS in their bodies.

A 2020 study from the Environmental Working Group found that over 200 million Americans may have PFAS in their tap water.

These chemicals are all around us; they’re in fast-food boxes, non-stick cookware, cosmetic products, food packaging, carpets, and paint.

“The amounts we have, these days, are lower than they used to be and trending down mostly as a result of consumer pressure and government action causing reductions in PFAS use,” Spaeth said.

There are a few recommended tactics to reduce your exposure to PFAS.

For example, you can filter your drinking water with a NSF/ANSI certified filters, which help eliminate contaminants.

Limiting the amount of fast food, microwavable popcorn, and takeout can help lower your exposure.

Washing your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating and opting for stainless steel or cast iron pans instead of non-stick cookware can also help.

Experts also recommend buying furniture that is not labeled “stain-resistant,” avoiding products that contain the ingredients “fluoro” and “perfluoro,” and vacuuming frequently.

There are no labeling requirements that alert consumers PFAS are in products, and oftentimes, PFAS are present as unintended, unidentified contaminants, said Spaeth.

“It’s very hard to know what, when and how to choose products to reduce PFAS exposure,” Spaeth said.

A new study has found that people with cancer have significantly higher levels of forever chemicals in their bodies. These chemicals may disrupt endocrine function and contribute to hormone-related cancers of the breast, ovary, skin, and uterus. It’s difficult to avoid forever chemicals, as they are ubiquitous in the environment and consumer products, however, there are often safer alternatives.