By Brontë H. Lacsamana 

PER- AND POLYFLUOROALKYL substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals” due to their strong chemical bonds that don’t break down in the environment, have been found in high concentrations in women living in the Greater Manila Area, according to a newly released biomonitoring study

Of the 150 participants who contributed blood, hair, and urine samples, half had breast cancer while half didn’t. PFAS exposure was higher in those with breast cancer.  

Household items that contain PFAS, according to the study, include food packaging, non-stick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, paints, and cosmetics, among many others. 

“Most patients with breast cancer have high PFAS levels, suggesting an association between the two,” said Dr. Michael C. Velarde, professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) Institute of Biology and head of the study, at a UPD press conference in August. He also clarified that the data couldn’t conclusively say that these chemicals caused breast cancer, as the study is the first of its kind in the Philippines. 

With further monitoring, he said, pinpointing the exact sources of these chemicals is possible. Women from Region IV-A or Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon), for instance, had high levels of long-chain PFAS, which have a longer carbon backbone. The research team hypothesized that this was due to the concentration of industrial factories in the area (higher than the National Capital Region).  

Studying the risk factors of breast cancer is vital for the Philippines, as it has the highest prevalence of breast cancer in Asia with approximately 70% of cases occurring in women with “undetermined risk factors,” added Dr. Velarde. 

“Most products unfortunately incorporate one or more of these PFAS. What we should do is look at the labels,” said Dr. Roy R. Gerona, associate professor of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California San Francisco, where the samples were sent for analysis.  

He went on to enumerate specific endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) like polycarbonate in reusable drinking bottles, parabens in cosmetics, triclosan in hand sanitizers and disinfectants, and benzyl phenols in sunscreen. 

“Aside from breast cancer, these EDCs could also have an effect on fertility, obesity, and metabolism,” said Dr. Rodney B. Dofitas, chief of surgical oncology at UP-Philippine General Hospital (PGH). He suggested factory, household, and medical workers should wear face masks while working or cleaning as a precaution. 

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) is one of many organizations around the world which has called on legislative bodies globally to protect people and the environment from synthetic chemicals like PFAS by phasing out non-essential uses of it in clothing, packaging, and furniture. 

In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008 helped facilitate the continuous decline of EDC levels in the population, according to Dr. Gerona, while Philippine levels based on the recent study ranged from 3 to 12 times higher than US levels, depending on the specific chemical.  

The panel also zeroed in on the need for funds to fuel research that can be done by UP-PGH’s Biobank, which collects biospecimens. 

“A few studies have already detected EDCs and contaminants in rivers and lakes in the greater Manila area,” said Dr. Velarde, on the importance of further research. “Those past studies show levels in the environment, but [before ours,] there have been no studies yet of levels that reach people, biomonitoring studies done through samples.” 

A national biomonitoring program, he added, has to be put in place in order to protect people from illnesses like cancer.