27 January, 2015

I would have thought that the horrifying prospect that by 2020, half of us will face cancer at some point in our lives. And that it would bring cancer charities together in a unified determination to unearth the root causes of the disease.

Sadly, this was not evident in a blog statement one breast cancer charity issued this week. In response to an article in the Telegraph, they felt compelled to state that “there is no convincing scientific evidence to back up claims that pesticides or chemicals found in plastics cause cancer in people”.

This statement is inaccurate and unhelpful.

It does not reflect the growing body of scientific evidence that suggests otherwise. Naturally, we were encouraged last week when the Telegraph gave some much-needed air time to a question we have been asking for the last ten years (and scientists like Rachel Carson and Theo Colborn for decades).

‘Could an increase in cancer incidence rates result from the chemicals in our environment, food and drink?’. In her article, Judith Potts, herself diagnosed with breast cancer, raised concerns about the increasing number of younger people diagnosed with cancer. She wondered whether scientists were looking in the right direction in their hunt for the cause of this disease.

Her article referred to our call for Bisphenol A (BPA) to be banned from food and drink packaging because of concerns that it has been found to damage the developing mammary gland in a way which could increase the risk of breast cancer. These concerns are well founded. They have been echoed by the European Commission. In 2010 banned BPA in baby bottles because of its possible “effect on development, immune response and tumour promotion”.

More recently, the French Health Authority, ANSES, voiced concerns that BPA could lead to a “change in the structure of the mammary gland in the unborn child that could promote subsequent tumour development”. This led to a French ban on BPA in all food and drink packaging which came into effect this month. These concerns are echoed by many scientists, health organisations and politicians across the globe. They are worried that BPA is just one of many chemicals which, individually or in combination, could be one of the reasons why rates of ill health. Including why cancers are rising in the Western world.

Yet a well-known breast cancer charity here in the UK disagrees

In its response, the possibility that chemicals in plastics, such as BPA or pesticides, have any role to play whatsoever in the rising rates of cancers is soundly rebuffed as “clichéd” and “speculation”. It is a surprisingly unswerving and entrenched response that ignores much scientific evidence. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the chemicals we are concerned about.

BPA is one of many hundreds – possibly thousands – of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) used in products (like plastics and pesticides) that cause damage. They can interfere with normal hormone functions in humans and lead to cell changes or tissue damage, which could increase the body’s vulnerability to cancers. In light of this, the self-assured rebuff that BPA is not carcinogenic is misplaced and misleading. All too often, those that wish to dispel “myths” that chemicals are not carcinogenic. Base their assumptions on the assumption that we know everything about how the body works, how tissues develop, and how chemicals impact developing tissues.

Yet the simple truth is: we do not. To assume that, simply because a chemical is not carcinogenic, it must be safe is illogical and extremely dangerous. What this assumption misses is that chemicals can be harmful and exert their effects in different ways. BPA, the chemical can mimic oestrogen and interfere with the normal development of the mammary gland that is of concern.

We know synthetic oestrogens DO play a role in breast cancer risk

(E.g. HRT, DES, the oral contraceptive), and several studies have linked prenatal BPA exposure to an increased incidence of mammary gland tumours. We think this should be enough to warrant concern, questions, further investigation and, yes – precautionary action.

Rather than dismissing our concerns, a more measured response would perhaps have been to acknowledge that there is debate in this area. As well as a growing body of scientific data that poses key questions about how our exposures to chemicals like BPA are playing in the rising rate of cancers and other diseases. This uncertainty has led thousands of us to call on the European Union to introduce tougher regulations. This would enable us to more accurately assess and categorise EDCs to help better protect public health.

We are pleased that some research is being undertaken by the cancer charity to study the environmental risk factors for cancer. Yet, the statistics suggest that this area of research gets nowhere near as much attention as other areas. Only 3.6% of cancer research funding went towards prevention in 2013. Only 1.2% on the disease’s ‘exogenous’ or environmental causes. In light of this woeful underfunding into prevention, Judith Pott’s original question, “Could it be that doctors and researchers are looking away from what is around us” would seem apposite.

I do not dispute the good work that cancer charities in this country have done – or are doing – to identify the root causes of breast cancer.

Yet prevention and the environmental causes of the disease remain an underexplored area of research. It desperately needs further funding, indeed a great deal more understanding amongst mainstream cancer charities and definitely needs more debate.

To reiterate, by 2020, almost half of Britons will get cancer in their lifetime. We should be working together to help put a stop to that horrifying trend.

Further information

IPCS. (2002). Global assessment of the state-of-the-science of endocrine disruptors. Geneva, Switzerland, World Health Organization, International Programme on Chemical Safety.

Diamanti-Kandarakis E, et al., (2009). Endocrine- disrupting chemicals: an Endocrine Society scientific statement. Endocrine Reviews, 30(4): 293–342.

Soto AM, et al., (2013). Does cancer start in the womb? altered mammary gland development and predisposition to breast cancer due to in utero exposure to endocrine disruptors. Journal of Mammary Gland Biology Neoplasia 18(2): 199-208.

UNEP/WHO (2013). State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals 2012

TEDX. Endocrine Disruption

EEA. (2012). The impacts of endocrine disrupters on wild-life, people and their environments—The Weybridge+15 (1996–2011) report.

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