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Environmental Factors and Breast Cancer

In addition to the traditionally acknowledged risk factors for breast cancer, scientists are increasingly coming to understand that many chemicals commonly found in products we use daily may also be contributing to the very high incidence of breast cancer.
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By Janet Gray, Ph.D., Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Vassar College and Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., Professor and Director, Integrative Medicine Program, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

In addition to the traditionally acknowledged risk factors for breast cancer (age, reproductive history, genetic profile, obesity, alcohol intake, smoking, etc.), scientists are increasingly coming to understand that many chemicals commonly found in products we use daily may also be contributing to the very high incidence of breast cancer. We need to better understand the health effects of these environmental chemicals, especially so-called endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs). A number of both natural and manmade substances are thought to cause endocrine disruption, including pharmaceuticals, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, and substances in plastics such as bisphenol A (BPA). EDCs may be found in many everyday products that we use, including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, additives or contaminates in food, toys, personal care products and cosmetics, and pesticides. More knowledge on the role of EDCs in the risk of breast cancer may lead us to undertake actions that aim to better prevent breast cancer.

In fact, a Congressionally-mandated report released in February 2013 by the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee concluded that we need a national prevention strategy, based on a better understanding of the links between environmental factors and risk for breast cancer. Another recent report (also February 2013) released jointly by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme examined the science linking EDCs and developmental processes in a variety of physiological systems. The report concludes that there is substantial evidence to support EDC-induced impacts in wildlife and laboratory animals, but acknowledges the current weaker state of evidence for harm in humans, but this latter point may reflect the relative lack of sound epidemiological studies in this area. Together these major reports, along with others produced in the past two years by the President's Cancer Panel and the Endocrine Society, raise concern for the possible health impacts of exposures to many environ­mental factors, especially when they occur in interaction with various genetic, reproductive, and other lifestyle risk factors.

We should not have to be organic chemists when we go shopping for food or personal care products, but unfortunately many of the chemicals of concern are not regulated, and companies do not regularly label their products as containing EDCs. Hopefully, chemical reform regulation which will be re-introduced in Congress in 2013 will address some of these issues.

In the meantime, there are a number of simple things individuals, families, and communities can do reduce exposure to environmental chemicals that could pose risk for breast cancer:

  • Avoid plastic water bottles and Styrofoam containers;

  • Never microwave food in plastic or Styrofoam;
  • Eat fresh or frozen foods, not canned, unless can is lined with BPA-free plastic;
  • Go fragrance free in both personal care products and household cleaning products;
  • Remove plastic bags and air out garments that have been dry-cleaned before either wearing them or putting them in closets or drawers;
  • Choose products that have detailed ingredient labels and don't contain known EDCs (e.g., parabens, phthalates, BPA). Contact companies for information if you have concerns about their ingredients;
  • Minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides, especially when using them for mainly cosmetic landscaping purposes, to avoid personal exposure and especially for young children in your neighborhood.
  • Seek out reputable information to help you make safer choices and strategies to decrease your exposure to environmental risks such as the Breast Cancer Fund, the Environmental Working Group, and the bilingual Vassar College Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer Project.
  • To learn more, attend the Friends of Integrative Medicine Evening Lecture Series at The MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, on April 15, 2013 where Dr. Janet Gray will speak on "Cancer and the Environment: From Science to Policy."

    For more by Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., click here.

    For more on personal health, click here.