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Wednesday, June 27, 2007 08:09 am

Breast cancers linked to chemical exposure

Increased incidence tied to pollution from everyday products

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In 90 percent of breast cancer cases studied, external non-genetic agents contributed to the development of the cancer.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
Untitled Document Is there any proof linking human breast cancer to exposure to chemicals in the environment, or do researchers think most cases of breast cancer are genetically inherited?
A groundbreaking research study coordinated by the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute and recently published by the American Cancer Society found that synthetic chemicals have likely played a large role in the rising incidence of breast cancer throughout the world over the last half-century. The study identified 216 manmade chemicals — including those found in everyday products such as pesticides, cosmetics, dyes, drugs, and gasoline (and diesel exhaust) — that have been shown to cause breast cancer in animals. Researchers believe these substances, many of which mimic naturally occurring hormones once inside the body, are also to blame for the increasing prevalence of human breast cancer. According to epidemiologist Devra Lee Davis of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and one of the lead researchers on the new study, the more hormones cycling through a woman’s body during her lifetime, the more likely it is that breast cancer will develop. Synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones magnify the risk because the body doesn’t know the difference between its own real hormones and other introduced chemicals. Only one in 10 women in whom breast cancer develops inherits a defective gene from her parents, Davis adds, meaning that in 90 percent of breast-cancer cases studied, external nongenetic agents such as synthetic chemicals contributed to the development of the cancer. Another telling clue is the fact that the breast-cancer risk of adopted children parallels the risk of the families they grew up in, not that of their biological families, as proved by analysis of medical records from Scandinavian countries that keep detailed registries following people from birth to death. “What we understand is that if cancer runs in your family it could be because your family had similar eating patterns [and] similar lifestyle patterns as well as lived in the same area,” Davis says. “It’s really important that we take another look at . . . the kinds of chemicals that we are using every day,” she adds. “We think that there are alternatives that can be used.”
The U.S. government has been reluctant to institute new restrictions on the production of highly profitable synthetic chemicals, but European regulators are taking the issue very seriously. The European Commission’s new Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals program calls on chemical manufacturers selling anywhere in Europe to reregister and reevaluate the potential health hazards — including cancer risks — of their products. Environmental and public-health advocates hope that American chemical companies will follow that lead with chemicals sold here. In the meantime, consumers can help prevent cancer by buying and eating organic foods, avoiding pesticides and other synthetic chemicals whenever possible, using nonplastic containers to reheat and store foods (some plastics are thoughts to leach cancer-causing chemicals into food when heated), and supporting government regulation and more research on synthetic chemicals and their effects.
For more information: Silent Spring Institute, www.silentspring.org; European Commission’s REACH Program, ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/reach_intro.htm.
Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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