Exposure to harmful chemicals may increase women's risk of high blood pressure, study finds

Photo (c) Alex Raths - Getty Images

Experts say women may be particularly vulnerable to these chemicals

A new study conducted by the American Heart Association explored how women’s exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may impact their heart health. According to their findings, women with the highest traces of the chemicals in their blood may be more than 70% as likely to develop high blood pressure

“PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they never degrade in the environment and contaminate drinking water, soil, air, food, and numerous products we consume or encounter routinely,” said researcher Ning Ding, Ph.D. “One study estimated that two of the most common ‘forever chemicals’ are found in most household drinking water and are consumed by more than two-thirds of Americans. 

“Women seem to be particularly vulnerable when exposed to these chemicals. Our study is the first to examine the association between ‘forever chemicals’ and hypertension in middle-aged women. Exposure may be an underappreciated risk factor for women’s cardiovascular disease risk.” 

Blood pressure risks

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from over 1,000 women between the ages of 45 and 56 who were enrolled in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation-Multi-Pollutant Study (SWAN-MPS). All of the women had healthy blood pressure levels at the start of the study, and the researchers followed up with them on a yearly basis from 1999 through 2017 to measure their blood pressure and take blood samples.

The researchers learned that women who had the highest concentrations of PFAS in their blood were at a higher risk of high blood pressure. The study looked at several different types of PFAS, and the researchers learned that some of them posed a bigger risk than others to the women’s blood pressure. Three of the chemicals stood out as having a more than 40% higher risk of high blood pressure: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and 2-(N-ethyl-perfluorooctane sulfonamido) acetic acid.

“It’s important to note that we examined individual PFAS as well as several PFAS together, and we found that the combined exposure to multiple PFAS had a stronger effect on blood pressure,” said researcher Kyun Park. “Some states are beginning to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging and cosmetic and personal care products. Our findings make it clear that strategies to limit the widespread use of PFAS in products need to be developed. Switching to alternative options may help reduce the incidence of high blood pressure risk in midlife women.”  

Overall, women with the highest levels of all seven PFAS had a more than 70% higher risk of developing high blood pressure. 

“We have known for some time that PFAS disrupts metabolism in the body, yet we didn’t expect the strength of the association we found,” said Park. “We hope that these findings alert clinicians about the importance of PFAS and that they need to understand and recognize PFAS as an important potential risk factor for blood pressure control.” 

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