pesticides. plastics. Cosmetics. deodorants cookware. Dirt-resistant furniture. computers.
What do all these seemingly unrelated objects have in common?
All were sooner or later suspected of increasing the risk of breast cancer.
It’s important to acknowledge that most researchers agree that there are no solidly proven associations between these—or other similar environmental factors—and breast cancer risk.
The troubling aspect of this, however, is that many believe it’s only a matter of time before we connect the scientific dots and see a picture of increased risk.
“It is true that we have no direct connections. But what we have is a compilation of epidemiological studies, cell culture studies, and animal data that are all consistent and, I think, come together to show us that partial exposure to women can increase their risk of breast cancer every day,” says Janet Gray, PhD, professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Vassar College Gray recently compiled a report with experts from the University of Pittsburgh’s Cancer Institute on what we know so far about the environmental links to breast cancer.
Gray says that while there’s no smoking gun that affects a specific area or even a chemical, she says evidence is beginning to accumulate to suggest that chronic personal exposure to low levels of many different chemicals plays a role .
“What’s really new in this field,” says Gray, “is that people are finally starting to look at interactions — and the fact that exposure to low doses of many different chemicals can produce results similar to exposure to high doses.” a chemical.”
And how many chemicals are we regularly exposed to? More than you can imagine, according to Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
He reports that an ongoing EWG surveillance project that regularly tests the blood, cord blood, urine and breast milk of 72 adults has so far identified the presence of 455 chemicals that shouldn’t be in the body.
“If you had one or two, you’d say no big deal. But you can’t say that the whole 455 doesn’t do anything harmful to the body. That just doesn’t seem plausible,” says Wiles.
Additionally, he reports that a recent EWG survey of about 2,300 Americans found that the average adult is exposed to 126 chemicals every day just from using personal care products.
“One in 13 women is exposed to a known or probable human carcinogen every day, with one in 24 women — or 4.3 million total — exposed to personal care ingredients that are known or probable toxic to reproduction and development,” it said it ruse.
But does this mean there is a direct environmental pathway from chemical exposure to breast cancer?
“Can we establish a direct link between the use of these products and breast cancer?” asks Dr. Julia Smith. “No. But there is strong scientific suspicion that some of the chemicals found in the environment, including those used in cosmetics and other personal care products, may increase risk, particularly when there is heavy exposure before the age of 25 .” Smith is Director of Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention and the Lynne Cohen Breast Cancer Preventive Care Program at NYU Cancer Institute and Bellevue Medical Center in New York City.
Although the lines between environmental attacks and breast cancer may be a bit blurred, a little better understanding of how breast cancer develops brings at least some of the suspicions into focus.
As Smith explains, breast cancer doesn’t happen overnight — or even as a result of chemical exposure. It is indeed a long and tedious process that begins years before you discover that lump in your breast.
“Problems usually start when something goes wrong at the cellular level in the breast tissue many years earlier,” says Smith.
Every healthy cell in our body goes through a life cycle that includes growth and division – a process known as mitosis. According to Smith, this process is controlled by several factors. This includes a series of genes that tell cells to grow and those that tell them to stop growing.
When something happens to interfere with this process, cells can spiral out of control, Smith says.
“Over time, these cells come together and form a tumor — the lump you find in your breast,” says Smith.
What does all this have to do with the environment? Many doctors believe that exposure to certain chemicals can damage one or more of the “control genes,” thereby starting the cancer process.
“We don’t have solid evidence that this is happening yet, but it’s one possibility,” says Smith.
Although almost every woman has the potential to be affected, experts now believe young women between puberty and age 25 are most at risk.
Why? These are the years when breast tissue is developing and is most vulnerable to external influences, according to Smith.
Smith tells WebMD women won’t see the effect right away. But exposures that occur in those early years can trigger a ripple effect of cellular activity that can eventually lead to breast cancer.
This is essentially the same thought that led researchers to conclude that the cellular damage that occurs as a result of sunburn before the age of 17 initiates a process that can end decades later as the deadly melanoma skin cancer.
While every woman has at least the potential to succumb to environmental influences, not all will. what makes the difference Our genetics – the individual blueprint that determines how each cell in our body should act.
“In each cell is all of our genetic material — the total number of genes from both parents,” says Smith. The “expressed” genes, she says, are the ones we see — blue eyes or brown hair, for example.
But what we see is only a small part of our genome. Most of what’s inside our cells is “unexpressed” — including our risk of certain diseases.
And while there are some clear genetic links to breast cancer that a woman can inherit, this group makes up a relatively small segment of the breast cancer population.
What’s likely to affect many of us, Smith says, is genetic predisposition — a gene that lies dormant in our bodies that, when triggered by certain circumstances, increases the risk of breast cancer.
“Once the gene is awakened, it starts expressing itself — and that expression can cause the kind of cellular changes that eventually lead to cancer,” says Smith.
Many believe it’s environmental stressors – including chemicals – that can wake up at least some of these dormant genes and put a woman on the cellular pathway to breast cancer.
While we can’t change our genetics, experts say we can control our environment to some extent.
And while you might think this means avoiding carcinogens — chemicals known to cause cancer — experts say when it comes to breast cancer, exposure to so-called “endocrine disruptors” is far more concerning. These are chemicals and by-products that, when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, can either mimic the effects of estrogen in the body or cause estrogen to act in ways that are not normal.
Because it’s estrogen that can trigger the growth of many tumors, Gray says anything that disrupts estrogen metabolism has the potential to cause harm.
“These chemicals cause a ‘triple whammy’ – they increase estrogen levels, alter cellular metabolism, and affect signaling pathways that increase cancer risk,” says Gray.
Based on a recent study in the Journal of Applied Toxicologysays cancer researcher Philippa Darbre, PhD, of the University of Reading in England, that evidence is mounting that the aluminium-based active ingredient in antiperspirants can mimic estrogen in the body.
At the same time, officials at the National Cancer Institute wrote in a report published in 2004 that there was “no conclusive research” linking underarm antiperspirant or deodorant use to breast cancer.
And the American Cancer Society (ACS) says most research on environmental links to breast cancer is unproven, and research linking deodorant use to breast cancer remains weak.
ACS spokeswoman Elizabeth Ward, PhD, previously told WebMD that there isn’t much evidence that environmental exposures have a large impact on breast cancer risk. She points out that studies looking at pesticides known to mimic estrogen failed to show a link between exposure and breast cancer.
“This is a topic that is still under investigation and it is important to study it further,” she says. “But there is no clear evidence of a relationship [between breast cancer risk] and exposure to environmental pollutants.”
Smith offers this advice: “You have to accept that there’s a lot in life that you don’t know—and just stay as close to a natural state of life as you can. Reduce where and when you can and minimize risk when and where you can in all areas of your life.”
To help all women make smarter lifestyle, personal hygiene, and environmental choices, Gray and her colleagues at Vassar and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute have created an educational CD that can be requested through their website (www.erbc. vassar.edu ).
In addition, the Environmental Working Group offers an online database of around 14,000 personal care products that are rated for their levels of chemical contaminants.