4 November, 2021

This week, world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the COP 26 summit to accelerate action to combat climate change and the impact of pollution on our planet. Our Public Affairs Officer Kit Bowerin discusses why world leaders must act to address chemical pollution to support the prevention of ill health and the creation of a non-toxic environment.

Breast Cancer UK has been dedicated to the prevention of breast cancer by addressing the environmental and chemical causes of the disease. With the UN Climate Change Conference in full swing and the focus on climate action, much is also at stake for the future of public health.

Today, society is exposed to increasing quantities of synthetic (or man-made) chemicals, many of which have not been tested for their health effects. There are widespread scientific concerns that exposure to such chemicals used in industrial and consumer products which lead to water, soil, and air pollution, is associated with rising incidences rates for many diseases including breast cancer.

What are the Public Health impacts of Chemical Pollution?

Throughout our daily lives, we are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals in our homes, workplaces, and the environment. These range from historical contaminants that are persistent chemical pollutants, such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to substances including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, nanomaterials, and other chemicals found in consumer products.

Chemical pollutants are released directly into the environment during or following use or as by-products of industrial and manufacturing processes threatening the health and wellbeing of people in the UK and aboard. Chemical pollution is a current and growing public health crisis:

Synthetic chemicals can be found in products we use regularly, from plastics to cleaning, cosmetics, and personal care products. These chemicals enter our bodies through the food and drink we consume, the air we breathe, and the products we absorb through the skin. However, we take their safety for granted often unaware of the potential risks certain chemicals pose to human health.

This includes chemicals that may cause cancer, are toxic, and/or interfere with our endocrine (or hormone) system. With Chemical production set to treble by 2050, without international action, we will weaken our ability to prevent disease and protect the health prospects of future generations.

Key Chemicals of Concern

Exposure to harmful chemicals, such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), even at low concentrations can trigger chemical reactions in the body that increase our chances of suffering from chronic and lethal diseases. These include hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast and prostate cancers, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, reproductive problems, and developmental effects. Key chemicals of concern to Breast Cancer UK include:

  • Bisphenols: found in hard plastics and epoxy resins, we are exposed to these mainly through diet, as a result of them leaching into food from food packaging. Long-term low-level exposure to bisphenol A causes mammary cancer in rodents and is thought to increase breast cancer risk in humans. Other bisphenols may have similar health effects.
  • Phthalates: used in PVC plastics, cosmetics, and personal care products have been characterized by reproductive toxicity in humans and animals. Some studies suggest high urinary levels of certain phthalates may be linked to increased breast cancer risk.
  • Certain flame Retardants: used in furniture to prevent or reduce the spread of fires, are toxic, can bioaccumulate, and are suspected of being carcinogenic. Legacy flame retardants, such as PCBs, have been linked to increased breast cancer risk.
  • PFAS: a group of 4,700 chemicals found in food packaging, persist in the environment, and have adverse reproductive, developmental effects on humans and wildlife. Some studies have linked higher blood levels of certain PFAS with increased breast cancer risk.
  • Certain pesticides: such as glyphosate, used to control weeds, various pests, and disease carriers, have been classified as possible carcinogens. Banned pesticides, such as DDT, are linked to increased breast cancer risk.

Limiting exposure to harmful chemicals is therefore essential if we are to reduce the burden of disease and meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal to: “Substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from harmful chemicals, air, water and soil pollution and contamination by 2030”.

Whilst we as individuals can take actions to avoid harmful chemicals, ultimately, it’s the responsibility of Governments and industry to deliver safe products and a non-toxic environment. We have known about the harmful impacts of these chemicals for over 20 years, but the history of international chemicals regulation has been a case of “too little too late”.

The way forward to protect public health

Internationally whilst progress has been slow, we have seen welcome developments at an EU Level with the EU “Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability” and ‘Beating Cancer Plan” both committing to ban EDCs in consumer products and reduce public exposure to carcinogens.

In contrast, UK public health plans and the cancer community fail to even acknowledge the need to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals. This omission is unacceptable and weakens our battle to prevent disease. This has also been recognised by the former Chief Medical Officer and the Environmental Audit Committee. The public too is demanding action. A recent survey found that 85% of UK respondents were worried about the impact of harmful chemicals on human health.

The COP summit and forthcoming UK Chemicals strategy provide golden opportunities to address this crisis. Action now will positively contribute towards reducing the 40% of preventable cancers and meeting the WHO target to lower mortality from non-communicable diseases by 25% by 2025.

Breast Cancer UK urges countries to:

  • Acknowledge the public health risks of routine exposure to harmful chemicals and recognising them as preventable cancer risk factors.
  • Adopt a grouping approach to chemicals management to speed up the regulation of harmful chemicals.
  • Commit to phase out EDCs within consumer products, setting out clear timelines to phase out groups of harmful chemicals linked to breast cancer, including Bisphenols, Carbon-based Flame Retardants, Phthalates, and PFAS.
  • Give Public Health bodies responsibilities to monitor, research, and propose policy interventions to address the impact of harmful chemicals on human health.

Kit Bowerin, Public Affairs Officer said:

“Without sustained action to address the impact of chemical pollution on human health our approach to cancer prevention is fundamentally flawed

If countries are serious about delivering on commitments to prioritise the prevention of ill health and supporting the transition to net-zero, they must act to phase out harmful chemicals that enter everyday products and the environment as part of public health and cancer strategies.

Strengthening our knowledge of chemicals and how they interact with our bodies is a core component of disease prevention”.

Further Reading

Breast Cancer UK (2021) ‘12 Key Asks for UK Chemicals Strategy(Accessed: 5th November 2021)

World Health Organisation (2021) ‘Public Health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns’ (Accessed: 5th November 2021)

UN Chemicals Outlook II (2019) ‘From Legacies to Innovative Solution’ (Accessed: 5th November 2021)

Environmental Audit Committee (2019) ‘Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life 16th July 2019, HC1805. 2017-2019

Breast Cancer UK (2021): ‘Background Briefing: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals’  (Accessed: 5th November 2021)

For further information on actions, you can take to reduce your exposure and put prevention first visit our Chemicals IGuide



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