Earlier Age at Menopause Linked to Chemicals in Common Household Products and the Environment

Commentary by: Sarah S. Knox, PhD and Amber Cooper, MD

Women with high levels of certain chemicals in their body experience menopause 2 to 4 years earlier than women with lower levels of these chemicals, according to a study published in PLoS ONE. These chemicals, known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, are found in the environment as well as common household items and beauty products.

Earlier menopause is linked to fertility issues (problems getting pregnant) and also can lead to earlier development of heart disease, osteoporosis (bone thinning), and other health problems. Other problems already linked to the chemicals include certain cancers, metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions, including high blood pressure, increased body fat around the waist, and high cholesterol levels) and, in young girls, early puberty.

The researchers studied data collected from 1999-2008 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The survey included information from 31,575 people, including 1,442 menopausal women who had been tested for blood and urine levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

15 Chemicals Linked to Early Menopause
The researchers found 15 chemicals—9 polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, coolants), 3 pesticides, 2 phthalates (found in plastics, common household items, pharmaceuticals and personal care products), and 1 furan (a toxic chemical)—that were linked with to an earlier age at menopause.

Women with the highest levels of these 15 chemicals had their last menstrual period 1.9 to 3.8 years earlier than those with lower levels of these chemicals.

“Multiple chemicals at use in our environment seem to be associated with early menopause, and early menopause is associated with elevated cardiovascular risk,” explained Sarah S. Knox, PhD, who is a Professor of Epidemiology at West Virginia University School of Public Health and in Morgantown, WV. Dr. Knox has done similar research showing that perfluorocarbons (chemicals found in many household products) disrupt multiple parts of the endocrine system.  

“Many of these chemical exposures are beyond our control because they are in the soil, water and air,” said Amber Cooper, MD, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “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,” Dr. Cooper said.

For example, Dr. Cooper recommends that people microwave food in glass instead of in plastic and try to learn more about the ingredients in cosmetics, personal care products and food packaging they use every day.

“Avoid flame retardant clothing, especially in children,” Dr. Knox said. “Do not microwave food in plastic containers or in cardboard food containers (they are lined with surfactants). Whenever feasible, buy organic vegetables to avoid pesticide residues, which do not disappear by rinsing in cold water,” Dr. Knox said.

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