Early menopause – don’t drink the (PFCs) water

Posted by on Mar 28, 2011 in Early menopause | 2 comments

Some rather disturbing news is coming out of the West Virginia University Department of Community Medicine, where researchers are saying that women found to be exposed to high levels of perfluorocarbons (PFCs may be at risk for early menopause.

PFCs are manmade chemicals that have been historically used in a variety of products found in the household, such as food containers, clothing, furniture, carpeting and paints. Often used to repel stains and for water proofing, PFCs have unfortunately found their way into our water, the air we breathe, the soil, plant life and animals. And as the researchers report in the March 16 online edition of the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, these chemicals have a long half-life, meaning that their presence in our lives appears to be ubiquitous.

In this particular study, the researchers examined data that had been collected from 25,957 women residing near Parkersburg WV who were between the ages of 18 and 65 and were believed to have been exposed to PFCs via their drinking water. After excluding women who had had hysterectomies, and accounting for factors such as smoking, age, body mass index, alcohol use and physical activity, they found that women with high blood levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) — both types of PFCs — were significantly more likelier to experience menopause at an earlier age than their peers with lower exposure levels. Moreover, exposure to high levels of PFOS in particular appeared to negatively effect concentrations of naturally occurring estrogen (i.e. estradiol), with higher levels of the chemical associated with lower estrogen levels, an event that occurs naturally in menopause as reproductive hormones start to wane.

Premature menopause has been associated with increased risk for a variety of conditions and due diligence is recommended. An increased of heart disease due to declining endogenous estrogen production is probably the most frightening and the one that experts appear to be most worried about. Conversely, women who maintain their estrogen levels for the longest period of times reportedly have a 20% decreased risk of dying from heart disease. And, the researchers point to another often disregarded issue, which is, that “the onset of accelerated decline in ovarian function and menopause is believed to be fixed,” i.e. early menopause equals an accelerated decline in fertility before age 32.

Of note, this study is a cros-sectional study, meaning that the researchers were unable to tease out factors that might affect their findings, such as length of time of exposure, or that PFC concentrations are higher in postmenopausal women because menstrual flow actually eliminates some of the PFC toxin in blood (blood is replaced faster than the toxin) and that since these women are no longer losing blood, the PFC remains. Still, lead researcher Dr. Sarah Knox believes that a danger exists, stating that “if PFCs are causing early menopause, then these women are at an increased risk for heart issues [since PFCs affect blood lipids]. If they aren’t, there are still toxins accumulating in the body that shouldn’t be there.” In other words, it’s bad news anyway you slice it.

Knox recommends that individuals, especially women, start taking precautions to eliminate or at least reduce exposure to PFCs, including:

  • Selecting hardwood floors over stain resistant carpeting in the home
  • Wearing cotton rather than synthetic clothing
  • Using an air popper or stove to make popcorn rather than a microwave
  • Microwaving food in glass rather than plastic containers, and,
  • Using cast-iron cookware instead of non-stick coated cookware.

I strongly believe that more research is needed on this issue and we need specific facts on how PFCs affect reproduction, if age plays a role or if menses and blow flow are important variables. Meanwhile, all women should start taking care to reduce exposure to environmental toxins and even more importantly, engage in heart-health-boosting measures that include diet, exercise and being mindful of  alcohol consumption.

Don’t drink the water? Well, you might want to stick with the bottled version once it’s all figured out. The PFOA link in this piece directly leads you to more information on the Environmental Protection Agency website.


  1. 3-28-2011

    Liz, Thanks for bringing up this topic. As an oncologist who’s had cancer, I’m constantly wondering what in the environment is harming us. The problem is proving cause and effect: It’s hard to demonstrate, for example, that synthetic carpeting or microwaved popcorn are true culprits in early menopause or anything, for that matter. I do worry about chemical-coated cooking utensils, because common sense tells me that what we ingest/absorb is most likely to cause harm in a dose-dependent manner.

    I do hope the government won’t pull back on the EPA, which needs to study all of this aggressively. Ultimately, reducing the incidence of toxin-induced diseases would lower health care costs, besides improve the quality of our lives 10 and 20 years from now.

    • 3-28-2011

      Great point Elaine and something that was brought up in the publication. Because of the population size, I think that the data looks pretty solid. Still, the cross-sectional design is worrisome and prevents a few challenges. For women who are at risk of early menopause, being aware of potential confounders is critical. Hence, I do hope that they continue to explore this issue. Thanks for reading and of course commenting.

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