Forever chemicals

STAR SCIENCE - Michael C. Velarde, PhD - The Philippine Star

With the threat of the Omicron variant, we are compelled to revert back to working from home, instead of physically reporting to work. While our home generally shelters us from the COVID-19 virus, we may still be exposed to other hidden threats which slowly kill us. Toxins from consumer products may contaminate our food and drinking water, increasing our risk of developing non-communicable diseases such as cancer and liver disease. These contaminants may also lower the immune system to increase our susceptibility to pathogens.

One group of toxins detected in humans include a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are used in many products including clothing, food packaging, cooking utensils, furniture, electric wire insulation because they are highly resistant to high heat, water, oil, grease, stains and natural degradation. Hence, they tend to persist and accumulate in the environment. Their production also involves the emission of greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. Due to this, PFAS are also called forever chemicals. They accumulate in soil and water and in fish and wildlife, which then reach humans. They enter our bodies through ingestion, inhalation and skin contact, persisting in the body for years and even decades. Humans can suffer from adverse effects coming from chronic and direct exposure to these chemicals. In addition, they may be passed on to the next generation through breast feeding.

PFAS exposure is associated with reproductive abnormalities and several types of cancers, such as testicular and kidney cancer. They increase the risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women and low birth weights in babies. While the effects of PFAS are not immediate, kids exposed to PFAS while in the womb grow up to have various disorders, including imbalance in lipids (such as cholesterol and triglycerides) and altered onset of puberty. Children exposed to PFAS at infancy also have compromised immune systems and reduced antibody responses to vaccines. It is not surprising then that many advocates are calling for the phase-out of these forever chemicals.

There are very limited studies regarding the level of PFAS in Southeast Asia, a majority of these papers published in a little less than a decade. Hence, our team initiated a study to measure the level of PFAS in the blood of Filipino women in the Greater Manila Area. To our surprise, we found that Filipinas have an alarming average PFAS concentration, about four to ten times higher than American women, and this high level is observed in Filipinas with breast cancer. While the route and source of PFAS exposures in these women remain to be ascertained, we noted that a high proportion of women with elevated PFAS concentrations reside in the CALABARZON area, with some of them being current or previous household or factory workers. While more studies are needed to confirm the extent of PFAS exposure in Filipinos across the country, the high levels of PFAS measured in this study implicates the strong relevance of this contaminant in the Philippines.

Personally, I was astounded with the level of PFAS obtained in our study that it moved me to make some lifestyle changes. But as a consumer, it is very difficult to know which products contain PFAS, especially because the Philippines does not monitor these chemicals in commercial and industrial products. Hence, one solution to reduce PFAS exposure is to limit the use of items that might contain them and find alternatives with low PFAS instead.

For example, one should avoid take out containers and microwavable popcorns whenever possible, as paper wraps and containers are usually coated with PFAS to keep the paper durable and grease-proof. If unavoidable, transfer the food to glass or stainless steel plates as soon as possible. Never reheat food on plastic or paper containers even if it is labelled microwavable. Use microwavable glass or ceramic containers instead. Cook popcorn on a stove top.

When cooking, limit the use of non-stick cookware, especially those with scratches. Use stainless steel, wood, earthen pot (palayok) or cast iron cookware instead. Choose fresh vegetables over canned vegetables. Use glass instead of plastic containers when storing food, especially when the food is still hot.

These are just some of the things we can do in order to minimize our contact with PFAS. Even though PFAS are difficult to eliminate in our body, it is not too late to reduce our exposure to these silent, inadvertent killers.

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Michael C. Velarde is a professor at the Institute of Biology, UP Diliman, where he teaches courses in cell biology and related fields. His research interests include the study of female reproductive endocrinology, cell senescence, cancer, and related pathologies. E-mail: [email protected]

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