Equilibrium & Sustainability

Hormone-disrupting ‘forever chemicals,’ phthalates may impair bone health in teen males: study

Exposure to two classes of endocrine-disrupting compounds — “forever chemicals” and phthalates — may be associated with poor bone health in male teens, a new study has found.

Some of these disrupters, which interfere with the way the body’s hormones work, could be responsible for reducing bone mineral density in adolescent boys, according to the study in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Because bone accrual mainly occurs during childhood and adolescence, the authors stressed the importance of identifying factors that negatively impact bone development during this period.

So-called forever chemicals — also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — are most notorious for their presence in jet fuel firefighting foams and industrial discharge, but are also key ingredients in a variety of household products, like nonstick pans, waterproof apparel, cosmetics and food packaging.

Not only are PFAS pervasive in consumer products, but they also tend to linger in both human tissue and in the environment. Exposure to PFAS is linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and other illnesses.

Phthalates, meanwhile, are often used in personal care products, children’s toys and food packaging and processing materials. They are associated with birth defects, infertility, learning disabilities and neurological disorders. 

“Adolescence is an important time when our bodies build up bone,” study co-author Abby Fleisch, of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, said in a statement.

“Almost all U.S. children and adolescents are exposed to PFAS and phthalates, but few studies have looked at how these chemicals could be impacting our bone health,” Fleisch added.

PFAS and phthalates may impact bone in a similar manner by acting through shared biological mechanisms, the authors explained. Both groups of chemicals can activate a type of protein-regulating gene that suppresses the formation of the cells responsible for skeletal mineralization, according to the study.

To conduct their research, the scientists analyzed urine and blood samples from 453 boys and 395 girls together through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program that assesses the nutritional status of American children and adults.

While they found that higher levels of PFAS and phthalates may be linked with lower bone mineral density in adolescent males, they did not observe the same impact on adolescent girls, according to the study.

The results were similar across non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic individuals, the authors noted.

Because bone mineral density tracks across a lifetime, the scientists hypothesized that if their approach was employed in studies that cover a longer period, the findings could have far-reaching ramifications for the health of human skeletons.

Meanwhile, the authors suggested that consumers reduce their exposure to PFAS and phthalates by avoiding relevant products or through the enactment of public policies that substitute these chemicals with safer alternatives.

“Because bone accrual primarily occurs during adolescence, if replicated, this finding may have implications for lifelong bone health,” Fleisch added.

Tags forever chemicals PFAS
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