RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Could those nonstick pans designed to let you cook without heart-damaging oils actually be damaging your heart? They could, according to studies that found that the chemicals used to manufacture those pans, as well as a variety of other stain-, water-, and oil-repellent finishes, may be causes of high cholesterol.
The chemicals in question are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), currently used to make pans and fabric finishes, and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), which had been used in Scotchguard finishes until it was banned in 2005. The chemicals build up in our bodies and are so persistent in the environment that they have even been detected in the blood of Arctic polar bears.
THE DETAILS: In the first study, published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers analyzed cholesterol levels and blood-serum levels of PFOS, PFOA, and two other related chemicals in 2,094 participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After adjusting for factors such as age, race, sex, weight, and physical activity, the researchers found a positive association between these chemicals and total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
A second study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, focused on residents living near a West Virginia-Ohio watershed that had been heavily contaminated with PFOA and PFOS by a nearby DuPont factory that manufactured both chemicals. That study reached the same conclusions: People with high levels of PFOA and PFOS in their bodies also had higher total and LDL cholesterol levels, even after controlling for demographic, lifestyle, and dietary factors.
WHAT IT MEANS: PFOA and PFOS have already been linked to both male infertility and female infertility, as well as low birth weight in babies. These studies don't definitively prove that chemicals used to repel stains and grease are causes of high cholesterol, says Kyle Steenland, PhD, professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and lead author of the American Journal of Public Health study. But, he says, they do raise questions about what these chemicals are doing to our bodies.
The NHANES studies found that 98 percent of all participants had detectable levels of these chemicals in their bodies, partly because they take so long for our bodies to eliminate once they are exposed to them. It takes 5.4 years for your body to get rid of PFOS and 3.8 years to get rid of PFOA. While inside you, Steenland says, the chemicals bind to proteins in your blood. "We can't tell whether PFOA causes high cholesterol, or if it correlates to something in the body that causes you to retain higher levels of cholesterol," he says. Either way, it may turn out that all these chemicals designed to make life more water-resistant and stain-repellent could mean higher levels of heart disease down the road.
Published on: November 3, 2009