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PFAS Exposure May Increase Risk of Breast Cancer

Thursday, October 24, 2019

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – as you may have noticed from the annual explosion of pink products claiming to fund breast cancer research.

However, as the group Breast Cancer Action points out, companies that make products containing the toxic fluorinated substances known as PFAS, like 3M and DuPont, shouldn’t profit from pinkwashing – putting pink ribbons on their products as a marketing ploy. These companies have known for decades that PFAS harms human health but hid that information from their employees and the general public.

Exposure to PFAS is linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines. PFAS exposure is also associated with health outcomes thought to increase the risk of breast cancer.

If companies like 3M and DuPont really care about reducing the risk of breast cancer, they should stop discharging them into the environment and support increased regulation of PFAS chemicals.

Since the 1940s, PFAS chemicals have been used to make many types of consumer products, including Teflon, grease-resistant food packaging, water-resistant clothing, firefighting foams and even cosmetics. PFAS also have applications in the electroplating and semiconductor industries.

Studies by the National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” that some PFAS increase the risk of pancreatic and liver cancer. Health outcomes associated with PFAS are also tied to increased risk of breast cancer.

Even at low doses, exposure to PFAS can change the structure and growth of mammary glands and alter girls' development during puberty. Animal studies on PFOA, a type of PFAS that DuPont formerly used to make Teflon, showed significant changes and abnormalities in the mammary glands of lactating mice chronically exposed to PFAS. Altered timing of mammary gland development can increase the risk of environmentally caused cancers and elevate the risk of breast cancer. 

In human mothers, studies have found a relationship between high PFAS blood serum levels and a shorter-than-recommended duration of breastfeeding. Longer periods of breastfeeding can lower breast cancer risk. Early life exposure to PFAS also interferes with normal hormone functioning and suppresses the immune system, alterations that increase the risk of breast cancer.

Studies have also shown that exposure to some PFAS can lead to greater growth and proliferation of breast cancer cells, and a study of Inuit women in Greenland found that women with more PFAS in their blood had an increased risk of developing breast cancer. 

This year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month coincides with deliberations in Congress on how to address PFAS in a must-pass military spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020. Several women’s groups signed a letter this month asking Congress to take strong action on PFAS in the NDAA. To reduce the risk of breast cancer and other health impacts from PFAS, Congress should include in the NDAA provisions that would quickly phase out the use of PFAS in military firefighting foam, reduce industrial discharges of PFAS, require reporting and monitoring for PFAS in ground and surface water, and jump-start the cleanup process under Superfund. 

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