Asian Americans likely have much higher levels of the “eternal chemicals” in their blood than do other American races and ethnicities, research using a new method for measuring exposure to PFAS has found.
The peer-reviewed study took into account sociodemographic, dietary, and behavioral characteristics in its algorithm, making it more sensitive to cross-cultural exposure differences than the standard methods used by the US government and most of the scientific community.
The research showed that the mean level of PFAS was 88% higher for Asian Americans than for non-Hispanic whites, a finding that is missing from the most widely used methods.
“We have to consider the heterogeneity of exposure when we think about measuring the cumulative burden of PFAS in people to make sure things are fair for everyone,” said Shelly Liu, a PFAS researcher and lead author of the study at Mount Sinai.
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 15,000 compounds frequently used to make products that are water, stain, and grease resistant. They have been linked to cancer, birth defects, low immunity, high cholesterol, kidney disease, and a host of other serious health problems. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally in the environment.
The federal government estimates that nearly all Americans have some level of the compound in their blood, but technology for measuring PFAS in blood only exists for about 40 types of the chemical.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently implemented recommendations for the first time on when people who have been exposed to PFAS should have medical tests, but they only base their guidance on eight common chemicals. The academy’s report also provides advice for doctors to reduce their patients’ exposure to these chemicals.
Liu said that while this approach provides good, broad information at the population level, it does not take into account the thousands of other chemicals that subsets of the population in the United States may be exposed to for various reasons, which are considered under the most sensitive methodology. Which is called item response theory
It’s not clear why Asian Americans have higher blood levels, Liu said, adding that more research is needed. However, fish is a major source of exposure to PFAS and it is believed that populations with higher levels of seafood in their diet generally have higher levels of PFAS in their blood.
Immigration history likely also plays a role, Liu said, as different countries use different PFAS and have different regulations. Failing to change the algorithm for how it measures the burden of PFAS in humans, Liu said, would leave clinicians and scientists “less effective at helping vulnerable communities reduce the burden of PFAS.”
“Then we may be missing a population where we can intervene to reduce the health effects of PFAS,” she added.
The research also found that lower-income Asian Americans had higher median levels of PFAS in their blood than their wealthier counterparts, but people with higher incomes in the general population generally showed a higher burden.
The study found no statistical difference in PFAS levels between black and non-Hispanic white people, and Mexican Americans had lower levels than whites. Liu said the findings show “how with a more rigorous approach to research we might be able to uncover disparities (between) populations.”