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In a new study, extensive exposure to common chemicals was linked to an earlier start of menopause. The researchers found that menopause typically begins two to four years earlier in women whose bodies have high levels of certain chemicals found in some of the common household items, personal care products, plastics and the environment, compared to women with lower levels of similar chemicals.
The investigators also identified 15 chemicals, nine of which have now been banned – PCBs, three pesticides, two forms of plastics chemicals called phthalates, and the toxin furan – that were significantly associated with an earlier start of menopause and may also have harmful effects on ovarian function.
“Earlier menopause can alter the quality of a woman’s life and has profound implications for fertility, health and our society,” senior study author Dr. Amber Cooper, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a university news release.
“Understanding how the environment affects health is complex,” she added. “This study doesn’t prove causation, but the associations raise a red flag and support the need for future research.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have been banned in the United States since 1979, but can be found in items that were manufacture before that time. Furans are by-products of industrial combustion, while phthalates are found in plastics, several household items, drugs and personal care products such as perfumes, lotions, makeup, liquid soap, nail polish, and hair spray.
The team that performed this study analyzed blood and urine samples from over 1,400 menopausal women, averaging 61 years of age, to determine their exposure to 111 mostly man-made chemicals.
Cooper said the study’s findings could have implications for women’s health.
“Chemicals linked to earlier menopause may lead to an early decline in ovarian function, and our results suggest we as a society should be concerned,” she said.
In addition to reducing fertility, a decline in ovarian function can lead to earlier development of heart disease, osteoporosis and other health problems, the researchers said. Prior research has also linked the chemicals with some form of cancers, early puberty and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome refers to a group of health conditions occurring together that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
“Many of these chemical exposures are beyond our control because they are in the soil, water and air,” Cooper said. “But we can educate ourselves about our day-to-day chemical exposures and become more aware of the plastics and other household products we use.”
Although, a number of these chemicals identified in the study have been banned in the United States because of known health risks, they are still produced in other countries and are common in the environment, Cooper added.
Two other experts say the findings reinforce what endocrinologists had long suspected.
“This important study strengthens the thinking that endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect ovarian function,” said Dr. Spyros Mezitis, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“Prior research has shown an association with metabolic defects and this research becomes an issue to discuss with patients requesting fertility treatment,” he said.
Dr. Jill Rabin who is the co-chief of the division of ambulatory care in Women’s Health Programs at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y. called the study “important,” because of the following:
“Earlier menopause can impact on a woman’s quality of life (hot flashes, mood and memory changes) and quantity of life (osteoporosis, fractures, heart disease).”
In conclusion, both experts called for additional research to clarify the exact quantity – how and by how much – of exposure to the chemicals listed in the study might negatively impact people’s health.