“Forever” PFAS chemicals appear to harm bone health in Hispanic teenagers, a new study finds.

The more PFAS chemicals found in the bodies of Hispanic adolescents, the lower their bone density was, researchers report in the Dec. 6 issue of the journal Environmental Research.

Peak bone mineral density in adolescence helps predict whether a person will develop osteoporosis later in life, University of Southern California researchers noted.

“Many existing studies haven’t included participants this young, but we’re now able to see that this association is already happening at a time when bones are supposed to be developing,” said lead researcher Emily Beglarian, a doctoral student in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in a wide range of consumer products, and also are widely present in drinking water and the environment.

They are called “forever chemicals” because of their carbon and fluorine molecules, one of the strongest chemical bonds possible. PFAS have been linked to reproductive problems and increased cancer risk, while a growing body of evidence has also tied the chemicals to lower bone mineral density, researchers said.

But those studies have focused mainly on older whites. This research team decided to see whether the same risk holds in young Hispanics, a group that faces a heightened risk of bone disease in adulthood.

“This is a population completely understudied in this area of research, despite having an increased risk for bone disease and osteoporosis,” senior researcher Dr. Vaia Lida Chatzi, a professor of population and public health sciences at Keck, said in a university news release.

Bone mineral density increases during the teen years and peaks between ages 20 and 30, then slowly decreases throughout adulthood, researchers said.

For this paper, the researchers studied two different groups of teens.

The first was a set of 304 Hispanic teenagers who were followed for about a year and a half. Researchers found that higher levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), one type of PFAS, were associated with an average decrease in bone mineral density at follow-up.

The second group involved 137 young adults, of whom nearly three in five were Hispanic. Again, high levels of PFOS were associated with lower bone mineral density.

These results show that stricter regulations are needed for PFAS, researchers said.

“PFAS are ubiquitous — we are all exposed to them,” Chatzi said. “We need to eliminate that exposure, to allow our youth to reach their full potential in terms of bone development to help them avoid osteoporosis later in life.”

The Environmental Working Group says people can reduce their exposure to PFAS by:

  • Not using nonstick pans and kitchen utensils.

  • Cutting back on fast food, as it often comes in PFAS-treated wrappers.

  • Avoiding stain-repellant or water-repellant clothing, carpeting and furniture.

  • Using an air or stovetop popcorn popper, as microwave popcorn bags are often treated with PFAS.

  • Choosing personal care products that don’t contain “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients.

More information

The Environmental Working Group has more about avoiding PFAS.

SOURCE: University of Southern California, news release, Dec. 6, 2023