BLOG: Banning toxics: the untapped opportunity | Breast Cancer UK

BLOG: Banning toxics: the untapped opportunity

Published 13 Sep 2016

In early October, a book explaining how to end the breast cancer epidemic will be published in France (“Cancer du Sein: En finir avec l’epidemie” / Breast Cancer, Ending the epidemic). It argues that the soaring incidence of breast cancer over the past 50 years is all about “bad” development – that is, the massive growth in synthetic chemicals used in food and everyday products in industrialised societies.

Both the Health and Environment Alliance and Breast Cancer UK have long been convinced that environmental factors, especially harmful chemicals and pesticides, play an important role in the current breast cancer epidemic. Both organisations want to see better regulation of chemicals – and a much wider recognition of the need for changes in environmental policy to breast and other cancer prevention.

What’s the evidence that chemicals cause breast cancer?

Breast cancer is linked to a number of risk factors, including genetics, alcohol consumption and early puberty. However, many studies demonstrate a strong correlation between breast cancer and certain chemicals and pesticides.

For example, the insecticide DDT has been shown to be at least partly responsible for the breast cancer epidemic in the US today. Breast cancer rates among women born to mothers exposed to widespread DDT after the Second World War are 3.7 times higher than among women born to mothers who were little or not exposed.

Workplace studies reveal that exposure to chemicals increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Women in food and beverage production workers, hairdressers, and cosmetologists have up to five times higher risk of developing breast cancer. (US Breast Cancer Fund report entitled Working Women and Breast Cancer: State of the Evidence,

The burden of chemicals in humans from environmental exposure has increased significantly during the period in which a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer has increased from one in 20 (in 1960s) to one in eight now. In particular, exposure to chemicals that are known to mimic our own hormones has increased. These substances are widely known as hormone or endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

EDCs linked to breast cancer are found in plastics, pesticides (and therefore in food), detergents, cosmetics and hygiene products, food additives, cookware, furnishings, electrical goods, and elsewhere, according Andre Cicolella, author of Cancer du Sein: En finir avec l’epidemie. He says that the main chemicals of concern are phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), parabens, PCBs and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

Some of the world’s leading expert scientists have long considered that enough is now known about hormone disrupting chemicals to undertake more regulatory action. “Given the known role of oestrogens (hormones) in breast cancer, it would be prudent to reduce exposures to chemicals that can mimic oestrogen,” said Professor Andreas Kortenkamp when his scientific review paper published by CHEM Trust in April 2008.

The European Cancer League, which brings together national organisations involved in cancer prevention, supports moves for better chemical safety. It told a meeting in the European Parliament that curbing exposure to EDCs should become a central part of cancer prevention strategy in Europe.

What can you do?

First, minimise your own exposure:

  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Buy organic food whenever possible.
  • Avoid unnecessary exposure to chemicals, particularly garden and indoor pesticides, homecare products, such as paints and detergents, and personal care products including cosmetics.
  • When possible, instead of using sunscreen to avoid sunburn, keep in the shade or cover up with loose fitting but tightly woven clothes and a hat.
  • Do not microwave food in plastic containers or wrapping. (HEAL leaflet)
  • Support NGOs working for policy change and regulatory action at national, EU and international levels.

Next, encourage friends and family to do the same. You could also share information on your social media accounts and in newsletters, especially about upcoming policy opportunities that may lead to better regulation of EDCs. Consider signing up to the EDC-Free Europe campaign news 

HEAL urges efforts to change governmental policy because only removal of these substances from use will allow women, men and children to completely avoid exposure via the environment. In addition, stronger public pressure could quickly result in legislative changes to remove chemicals of particular concern from the market. We would especially encourage and support approaches to your national Member of Parliament, Health and Environment ministers, and Members of the European Parliament.

For resources you can share, see Breast Cancer UK's manifesto, Prevention is better than Cure (2015)  and for EU policy updates, check the HEAL website, and the website and twitter account of EDC Free Europe (Breast Cancer UK is a campaign member).

Currently, HEAL is working to persuade national representatives and EU policy makers about the need for proper criteria on EDCs to allow existing regulation to be more protective of public health.

Some recent initiatives include letters to the European Commission President Juncker and to European Environment Ministers on EDC criteria and to European Parliament President Schulz on TTIP and the risks for chemical regulation.  

Breast Cancer UK has supported HEAL in all these and many other activities. We welcome your individual efforts to further promote such developments via social media.

Contacting MEPs and UK’s representatives in EU decision-making bodies remains very important despite the Brexit referendum. Chemical safety regulation is mainly decided at the European level and then implemented at national level, including in the UK. This will continue to be the case until the terms of the UK exit are finalised. Even afterwards, it is likely that more protective regulations in the UK will only be introduced once agreed in Europe. 

You can follow HEAL's work on their website and social media accounts, details below:


Twitter: @HealthandEnv

Facebook: healthandenvironnetalliance

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