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Common Chemicals: Breast Cancer Link?

Experts discuss whether chemicals in our environment have a connection to the risk of breast cancer.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Pesticides. Plastics. Cosmetics. Deodorants. Cookware. Stain-resistant furniture. Computers.

What do all these seemingly unrelated items have in common?

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History

Essiac was popularized in Canada during the 1920s, when the developer, a nurse from Ontario, began to advocate its use as a cancer treatment. In 1922, the developer obtained an herbal tea formula from a female breast cancer patient who claimed the mixture had cured her disease. Reviewed in [1,2,3,4,5,6] The patient reportedly received the formula from an Ontario Ojibwa Native American medicine man. The developer subsequently modified the formula, producing both injectable and oral forms of treatment...

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At one time or another, all have been suspected of increasing the risk of breast cancer.

The important point to recognize is that most researchers agree that there are no solidly proven links between these -- or other similar environmental factors -- and the risk of breast cancer.

The troubling aspect of this, however, is that many believe it's just a matter of time before we connect the scientific dots and see a picture of increased risk.

"It's true that we have no direct links. But what we do have is a compilation of epidemiological studies, cell culture studies, and animal data that are all consistent and I believe are coming together to show us that some of what women are exposed to every day may be increasing their risk of breast cancer," says Janet Gray, PhD, professor and chairman of the department of psychology at Vassar College. Gray, together with experts from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, recently compiled a report on what we know thus far about the environmental links to breast cancer.

Gray says that while there may be no smoking gun that implicates any one area of concern, or even one chemical, she says the evidence is starting to mount indicating that steady, personal exposure to low levels of lots of different chemicals does matter.

"What's really new in this field," says Gray, is that "finally people are starting to look at interactions -- and the fact that exposure to low doses of lots of different chemicals may yield a result similar to a high-dose exposure to one chemical."

 

Our Chemical Exposure

And just how many chemicals are we exposed to on regular basis? According to Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than you might imagine.

He reports that an ongoing EWG monitoring project which regularly tests blood, cord blood, urine, and breast milk from 72 adults has so far identified the presence of 455 chemicals that should not be in the body.

"If you had one or two you would say not a big deal. But you can't say that the whole 455 aren't doing something harmful to the body. That just doesn't seem plausible," says Wiles.

Moreover, he reports that a recent EWG survey of some 2,300 Americans found that the average adult is exposed to 126 chemicals every day -- just in their personal care product use alone.

"One in every 13 women is exposed to a known or a probable human carcinogen every day, with one in every 24 women -- or 4.3 million total -- exposed to personal care ingredients that are known or probable reproductive and developmental toxins," says Wiles.

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