By Dick Clapp

Researchers at Boston University School of Public Health (full disclosure: colleagues of mine) this week reported an association between perfluoroalkyl compounds — including PFOA, which was used to make non-stick products — and increased cholesterol levels.  This study took advantage of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a large dataset representative of the U.S. population now routinely collected by the CDC National Center for Environmental Health. The researchers looked at the concentrations of several chemicals of emerging concern, and found that three perfluorinated compounds were positively associated with total and non-HDL cholesterol.  Because the increase was in non-HDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), this suggests that increased blood concentrations of the three perfluorinated compounds may be associated with increased cardiovascular disease in exposed people.  The authors are careful to point out the limitations of their cross-sectional analysis, but rightly urge further study in other populations.

This study adds to the literature pointing to a range of adverse effects from perfluorinated compounds, including adverse effects on serum lipid levels in workers and residents near the Dupont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  As noted in previous posts here and in an on-going series of outstanding articles by Ken Ward in the Charleston (WV) Gazette, the implications of exposure to this persistent toxicant are widening.  The full range of human and ecological problems caused by perfluorinated compounds is yet to be described, but we already could list it among the “late lessons from early warnings” stories in the annals of public health.

Stay tuned as more information continues to accumulate, and as U.S. and international regulatory agencies move to control the damage.

UPDATE: Study author Jessica Nelson was interviewed for this Living on Earth segment.

Dick Clapp is Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, and former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. He served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit between DuPont and citizens of Parkersburg, WV.