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AMHERST, Mass. — Your chances of developing breast cancer might depend on how much time you spend in the kitchen. Cancer researchers are starting to look at how per and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances — materials used for coating non-stick and stain-resistant pots and pans — contribute to breast cancer development. This will be the first time women’s breast tissue will be directly exposed to these dangerous chemicals.

PFAS are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because it takes a long time for them to break down. Found in nearly 99 percent of household products, researchers have been looking into how these chemicals affect people’s health over long periods of time.

“We’re exposed to them in a variety of ways,” says Katherine Reeves, an associate dean of graduate and professional studies and professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a media release. “Drinking water is certainly a very common one. Even though these chemicals are being phased out, we’re still using the consumer products that have these – think of the couch you bought 15 years ago that you Scotch-Guarded. You’re still being exposed. And the health effects are not entirely known.”

Previous research on PFAS has linked these chemicals to contaminated water supplies, liver damage, thyroid disease, and birth defects. In animal experiments, these forever chemicals have also negatively affected the development and function of mammary glands. Likely because breasts are not producing milk anymore, “there are some human studies showing that women with higher exposure to these PFAS chemicals breastfeed for a shorter period of time,” Reeves explains.

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To study how breasts are affected by PFAS exposure, Reeves is using breast tissue samples donated to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Tissue Bank. The team will have access to the breast tissue samples along with the medical and reproductive history of the volunteers. Additionally, they will analyze data from 286 postmenopausal breast tissue donors, including blood samples, mammograms, and measurements of their terminal duct lobular (TDL) units.

TDL is responsible for making milk after giving birth. It’s also the site where breast cancer starts to first develop. However, turning on the process of producing milk or involution can decrease breast cancer risk.

One of the first questions the researchers will try to answer is a big one: Is there an association between PFAS concentrations women are exposed to and how much milk is being produced after childbirth? Reeves says they will measure the amount of the five most common PFAS chemicals in blood samples. They hypothesize the greater the PFAS concentrations in the blood, the less involution and higher breast cancer risk.

Mammograms will also help with examining breast cancer density. Cancer doctors have known for some time now that higher mammographic density is associated with an increased breast cancer risk. Another question in this research project is whether PFAS—along with genetics and weight—has anything to do with breast density.

“We’re taking advantage of these well-established biomarkers of future breast cancer risk to look at associations between PFAS and those biomarkers,” Reeves says.

As scientists take a deeper look into how these forever chemicals affect human health long-term, the research could help in identifying newer chemicals in everyday products that could pose a similar risk. The information would also help inform public health guidelines and policies for using this class of chemicals.

“It’s too early for us to study the health effects of these newer chemicals, but the mechanisms involved with these legacy chemicals can shed light on the health effects that we might expect to see from the newer chemicals that are being introduced today,” Reeves says.

The research is receiving funding from a two-year, $405,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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