They’re found in hundreds of household items. From carpets and cookware to shower curtains and microwave popcorn bags, polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) keep frying pans stick-free, waterproof rain gear and protect textiles from getting stained.
But with that protection also comes danger. The greater a woman’s exposure to PFCs, the greater her risk of developing osteoarthritis, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting approximately 27 million adults in the United States, causing pain and stiffness by a degeneration of the cartilage in the joints.
Researchers looked at data collected over a five year period by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey covering more than 4,000 men and women diagnosed as exposed to PFCs and suffering from osteoarthritis.
What they found was a link between osteoarthritis and exposure to two specific PFC chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS.
“We did find a clear and strong association between exposure to [these] compounds and osteoarthritis, which is a very painful chronic disease,” said to lead author Sarah Uhl, a former researcher at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. ““This adds to the body of information that we have suggesting that these highly persistent synthetic chemicals are of concern when it comes to the public health,” she said.
In past studies, PFC exposure has been linked to premature menopause in women, higher levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in men and women, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines in children.
In this study, researchers found “significant associations” between osteoarthritis and exposure to PFOA or PFOS among women, but they did not find the same such link to men.
While the biological reason is unclear, Uhl suspects the chemicals may have a negative impact on hormonal balances for women.
“Our hormone systems are incredibly delicate and can be thrown off by tiny doses of hormone-disrupting chemicals,” Uhl told Health Day. “And processes like inflammation and cartilage repair are associated with our hormones, and are also associated with osteoarthritis.”
Women exposed to the highest levels of PFCs were nearly twice as likely to develop osteoarthritis, compared to women exposed to the lowest levels. The risk also appeared to be stronger among women between 20 and 49 than in women over 50.
And despite a downward trend in global usage of PFCs due to safety concerns, Uhl warns that human and environmental exposure to the chemicals remains widespread and is likely to persist for years to come.
“Once they get into the environment they just don’t go away. In people, they last years. So even if we were to reduce the use of these chemicals right away, they’re still going to be around and in our bodies for a long time,” Uhl explained.
”Better understanding the health effects of these chemicals and identifying any susceptible subpopulations could help to inform public health policies aimed at reducing exposures or associated health impacts.”
While the causes of osteoarthritis are not fully understood, inflammation, abnormal calcium homeostasis, and oxidative stress are thought to be involved. The growing age of the population and increases in obesity are also believed to be contributing factors.