The Link Between Environmental Toxins and Breast Cancer

BY ON February 17, 2016

Woman in doctor's office getting her mammogram result, screening for breast cancer
Just a few weeks ago, Moms Clean Air Force Ohio field organizer, Jenny Linn, lost her life to breast cancer.

One in eight U.S. women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. Of those, 11 percent are under the age of 45. Twenty-odd years ago, I, too, became one of those statistics. And like Jenny, I was in the midst of raising young children.

Although my cancer was the result of an inherited BRCA1 gene, 85 percent of those who get the disease have no family history. Whether or not genetics are a factor, when we lose someone like Jenny, my reaction is always the same. First I feel sad, then angry, and then I ask, Why?

Fortunately, I’m not the only one asking that question. At a recent Breast Cancer Action webinar, “Environmental Exposures: Why Timing is Critical,” three experts shared their research into how environmental toxins influence a woman’s risk for breast cancer throughout her life.

The Link Between Obesity, Early Puberty, and Chemicals

Research shows that having an early puberty increases a girl’s risk for breast cancer later in life. As webinar presenters, Louise Greenspan, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist, and clinical psychologist Julianna Deardorff, explained, the three biggest forces behind early puberty are: excess fat; exposure to chemicals that disrupt healthy human biology, especially the hormonal system; and social and psychological stressors such as early childhood trauma and poor familial relationships.

In their book, The New Puberty, they write,

“Obesity and exposure to environmental chemicals create a vicious cycle whereby the chemicals that influence hormones can lead to more fat tissue, which in turn releases more hormones to interact with those chemicals.”

Chemical Exposure During Pregnancy Impacts Future Generations (Tweet this)

Another presenter at the webinar, Barbara Cohn, PhD, Director of the Child Health and Development Studies, a project of the Public Health Institute, explained her research into the long-term impacts of DDT on pregnant women and their offspring. DDT is a pesticide that was widely used between 1945 and the mid-1960s, and then banned in 1972.

The findings show that women with high levels of DDT exposure before their 14th birthday had a five-fold increased risk for breast cancer. Those exposed after puberty, however, did not have an increased risk. The data also showed that the daughters of those exposed to o.p. DDT (a contaminant found in the DDT canister) while in utero had nearly a four-fold increased risk for breast cancer. Not only that, if they did get breast cancer, it tended to be a more aggressive form.

These findings, said Cohn, show that,

“Any exposure by a pregnant woman can impact three generations: herself, her child and her child’s child because reproductive and breast cells are developed in utero.”

But, she said, these findings also suggest,

“… that we can help prevent breast cancer beginning before birth. We can choose to limit exposure to chemicals for pregnant women and children. Especially chemicals that are stored in the body for a long time; chemicals that disrupt or mimic a hormone like estrogen; and chemicals that are not essential.”

What You Can Do

During the webinar, Deardorff and Greenspan provided a list of chemicals that can cause obesity which links to early puberty. These include,

  • Phthalates – found in plasticizers, PVCS, vinyl floors, shower curtains, cosmetics, nail polishes;
  • PBDEs – flame-retardants often added to plastics and foam;
  • Cotinine – in cigarette smoke;
  • Triclosan – an antibacterial agent that mimics estrogen and can be found in toothpaste, hand soap, cosmetics, and clothing;
  • Phenols/BpA – found in hard plastic or can liners; and
  • PFOA- found in nonstick cookware.

When it comes to girls, chemicals found in bath and beauty products are particularly concerning. Deardorff and Greenspan suggest the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website as one resource, as well as its Skin Deep app.

Not everyone has access to a smartphone, however, and, with risky chemicals present in all of our lives, it’s hard to know where to turn for information. Moms Clean Air Force blogger and “Mom Detective”Lori Popkewitz Alper suggested in a recent email that,

“The best way to avoid toxins is to become an educated consumer. Get to know your products. Read labels. Ask questions. Contact the manufacturer and ask questions. Get online and see what the company is all about. Once you have information you’re better equipped to make healthy choices. Also, by asking and voicing your opinion you’re letting companies know that you care about product ingredients and safety. If more and more of us voice our concerns the hope is that companies will listen and make needed changes.”

In addition, as Cohn pointed out during the webinar,

“All of us can choose to support changes in society that reduce the use of suspect chemicals — by how we purchase, how we vote, and by what we say and do in our communities.”


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TOPICS: Cancer, Toxics