Common chemical linked to osteoarthritis, study shows

A recent study from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has found that high levels of exposure to a chemical found in everyday products are linked to osteoarthritis.

The study found that women in the highest 25 percent of exposure levels to perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs — a family of chemicals containing fluorine and found in everyday products such as furniture, paper products and textiles — were twice as likely to become osteoarthritic as those in the lowest 25 percent, said Michelle Bell, one of the study’s researchers and an environmental health professor at the environment school. The study was published in the February issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

“PFCs act like hormones in our bodies,” Sarah Uhl FES ’12 said — and even “vanishingly tiny doses” can have an impact.

Even though PFCs are “ubiquitous” chemicals to which most humans are exposed via ingestion and inhalation, there is not much definitive data on PFCs’ health effects on humans, said Russ Hauser, reproductive physiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. A large number of studies have assessed the effects of PFC exposure in rats, but Uhl said studying and measuring levels of toxic chemicals in humans is “very difficult.”

Hauser cited two studies focusing on health effects of high PFC exposure — one which determined a link between thyroid function and PFC exposure, and another which showed decreased immunization effectiveness in children from ages 5 to 7 linked to PFC exposure. More studies are necessary to understand the long-term effects of PFC exposure, Uhl said.

The data for the recently published study was taken from the 2003–’08 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Initially, the researchers looked at the data of men and women together. However, upon separating the data by sex, the researchers found that the link between PFC exposure and osteoarthritis was attributable to the women’s data — in fact, there was “no association in men, but a strong association in women,” who are already at a higher risk of the disease, Uhl said.

Bell said that although production of chemicals within the PFC family, such as PFOA and PFOS, has declined due to growing health and environmental concerns, exposure to the chemicals remains widespread. Still, the study’s results can be used to develop policies that protect the public from chemical exposure, she added.

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder, according to PubMed Health.

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