Chemicals linked to breast cancer flagged in household products: study

Some chemicals present in household products such as non-stick cookware, carpets and cleaning products may put women at greater risk for breast cancer, a recent study shows. 

The research found “significantly higher concentrations” of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in breast cancer patients than in healthy individuals, as a result of long-term exposure over a significant period of time.”

“Ang pagkakaalam natin sa science, it can be genetic kung bakit nagkakaroon ng cancer. Pero malaking factor din ang environment,” said UP Professor Michael Velarde, main project leader of the study in a press conference on Friday, Aug. 13. 

The research team flagged PFAS as “forever chemicals,” which can take a thousand years to break down. These are artificial substances widely used in everyday items like food packaging, paint and cosmetic products.

However, Velarde said that there are limitations to their findings since this is the first time PFAS levels in the human body were measured in the Philippines. Thus, further research is needed to prove that these chemicals could directly cause cancer.

“With time natin malalaman na ito nga ay cause ng cancer. Pero at least, alam natin na nakikita na siya na mataas doon sa mga babaeng may breast cancer,” said Velarde.

Out of 150 participants, Velarde’s team found high PFAS levels in all 75 breast cancer patients in the Greater Manila Area, which includes the National Capital Region (NCR) and Calabarzon region. The study showed that long-chain PFAS levels were significantly higher in Calabarzon patients, “a heavily industrialized region compared to the NCR.” 

Calabarzon is home to top semiconductor and electronics industry firms which contribute to hazardous wastes, including PFAS. Factory workers had significantly higher levels of forever chemicals compared to those who do not work in these settings, the study shows.

First human biomonitoring study in PH

The project is a collaboration between the UP Diliman Institute of Biology, Philippine General Hospital and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

It is the first biomonitoring study in the Philippines that investigated the effects of human exposure to chemicals in the environment. Environmental analysis examines pollutants in the Earth’s systems while biomonitoring measures toxic chemicals in human tissues.

These studies have already been widely adopted by Western countries to improve their detection and prevention of diseases.

UCSF Associate Professor and co-project leader Roy Gerona said that although there have been several environmental analysis studies in the country, it is time for scientists to prioritize biomonitoring and examine how the environment affects the human body. 

“Once it is found inside the human body, mahirap nang i-deny that what’s in the environment is really affecting us,” he added.

Oncologist and fellow project lead Rodney Dofitas said that tracing the source and prevention of cancer is more productive than curing it. 

Policies urgently needed

As toxic chemicals have been linked to plastic, experts in the study are urging for policies to lessen their use in the country, especially as the Philippines ranked third among countries with mismanaged plastic waste.

Gerona said that in the United States, policymakers implemented laws limiting the use of harmful chemicals after scientists discovered high levels of PFAS and phthalates, a synthetic chemical found in plastic.

A significant decrease in these chemicals were recorded following the implementation of such laws, proving the “tangible effect of policies.”

Meanwhile, the Philippines has three to 12 times more phthalates than the levels in the United States, said the study, citing data from the UCSF National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Presence of phthalate continuously declined over years after the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was implemented in the US. In the Philippines, recorded levels of phthalates are three to 12 times higher than the US.  Graph from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

Local lawmakers have yet to file a bill that would regulate the production of these chemicals. The country’s only legislation for waste control is the Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990 but it does not include PFAS. 

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics urged governments to prioritize legislation that will phase out non-essential uses and manufacturing of PFAS, especially in products designed for pregnant women and children.

Velarde said the government can help lessen ‘forever chemicals’ by funding biomonitoring programs, investing in progressive technologies and implementing legislation.

“If [PFAS are] coming from the industry or from any chemicals [and] even households, [dapat] meron tayong way to remove these chemicals,” he said. “Dapat mayroong group of scientists who will eventually work on this.”

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