TUESDAY, Oct. 3, 2023 (HealthDay News) – Exposure to ubiquitous chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, may delay puberty in girls, new research indicates.

The study is the first to consider the role hormones play in the delay, according to researchers from the University of Cincinnati.

Delayed puberty can lead to negative long-term health outcomes for girls, such as a higher incidence of breast cancer, kidney disease and thyroid disease, said corresponding author Susan Pinney, a professor of environmental and public health sciences at the university’s College of Medicine.

“Puberty is a window of susceptibility,” Pinney said in a university news release. “Environmental exposures during puberty, not just to PFAS, but anything, have more of a potential for a long-term health effect. What these have done is extended the window of susceptibility, and it makes them more vulnerable for a longer period of time.”

Researchers examined data from more than 800 girls from the Greater Cincinnati and San Francisco Bay areas who were 6 to 8 years old when they joined the study.

The girls were examined every six to 12 months to see when they experienced the first signs of breast development and pubic hair.

About 85% of the girls in the two geographic groups had measurable levels of PFAS.

Researchers also discovered evidence of decreased hormones that were consistent with findings of the delayed onset of puberty.

“The study found that in girls with PFAS exposure, puberty is delayed five or six months, on average, but there will be some girls where it’s delayed a lot more and others that it wasn’t delayed at all,” Pinney said. “We are especially concerned about the girls at the top end of the spectrum, where it’s delayed more.”

More than 99% of girls in the two groups had measurable levels of PFOA, one of the most important of the PFAS chemicals.

Pinney offered some theories about how this happened. For decades, a DuPont plant near Parkersburg, W. Va., released PFAS into the Ohio River, which is the main source for drinking water in the Cincinnati area.

PFAS were also present in firefighting foam and there is a firefighting training ground near major water intakes on both sides of the river.

The findings were published Sept. 26 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Pinney said this study and others raise the question of why this happened, knowing these dangers.

“The evidence of PFAS being dangerous goes all the way back to the 1980s when chemists were doing studies, noticed that PFAS had the same chemical structure as other dangerous chemicals and they reported on it,” Pinney said. “It’s taken a very long time for us to recognize it as a human toxin. Meanwhile, all of these toxins got into our environment, and it’s going to take a long time before they leave.”

PFAS do not degrade, although other studies are investigating whether it may be possible to break up the chemicals.

“It seems to take a long time to convince regulators about the health effects of PFAS,” Pinney said. “We as scientists need to be more forceful with regulators and say, ‘Hey guys, you read the same science we read.'”

Pinney said it’s all been a learning experience.

“Scientists are frustrated with the slowness of movement to change regulatory guidelines,” she said. “Not only do we need to publish our research findings, but also do our best to inform the general population and the health care community. Efforts toward environmental cleanup have begun, but it is very costly.”

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more on PFAS.

SOURCE: University of Cincinnati, news release, Sept. 29, 2023