PFAS increase likelihood of death by cardiovascular disease, study shows | PFAS


For the first time, researchers have formally shown that exposure to toxic PFAS increases the likelihood of death by cardiovascular disease, adding a new level of concern to the controversial chemicals’ wide use.

The findings are especially significant because proving an association with death by chemical exposure is difficult, but researchers were able to establish it by reviewing death records from northern Italy’s Veneto region, where many residents for decades drank water highly contaminated with PFAS, also called “forever chemicals”.

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Records further showed an increased likelihood of death from several cancers, but stopped short of establishing a formal association because of other factors.

“This is the first time that anyone has found strong evidence of an association of PFAS exposure and cardiovascular mortality,” said Annibale Biggeri, the peer-reviewed study’s lead author, and a researcher with the University of Padua.

PFAS are a class of 15,000 chemicals used across dozens of industries to make products resistant to water, stains and heat. Though the compounds are highly effective, previous research has linked them to cancer, kidney disease, birth defects, decreased immunity, liver problems and a range of other serious diseases.

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Veneto’s drinking water was widely contaminated by a PFAS-production plant between 1985 and 2018. Researchers first found an excess of about 4,000 deaths during this period, or about one every three days.

Part of the region was supplied with water from a different source, giving researchers the opportunity to compare records for tens of thousands of people who drank contaminated water and lived near those who did not.

Though PFAS can affect the cardiovascular system in different ways, it is largely a problem because it produces stubbornly high and dangerous levels of cholesterol. The levels are difficult to control because they aren’t caused by dietary or lifestyle choices that can be addressed with adjustments, but hormonal changes that affect the metabolism and the body’s ability to control plaque in arteries.

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The study’s authors suspect that post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the environmental disaster, which upended lives across the region, may also be contributing to circulatory disease.

The evidence of a jump in kidney cancer was also “very clear”, Biggeri said. In the study’s first five years, 16 cases were recorded, while 65 were recorded in the last five years. It also found elevated levels of testicular cancer during some time periods.

The records “showed clearly” that earlier life exposures led to higher levels of mortality, except for women who have multiple children. Previous research has found levels were higher in women with only one child.

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The chemicals accumulate in placentas and are passed on to children during pregnancy, which reduces levels in the body. Mortality levels among women who were of child-bearing age were generally lower, but increased in older women.

The chemicals will be passed down to children for generations, said Laura Facciolo, a Veneto resident who drank contaminated water. She said the findings underscore the need to ban PFAS, and the disaster’s injustice.

“I found myself in a big giant trial where no one gave any consent, just like mice,” she said. “I have no words for this.”

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