NHS Choices amends article following Breast Cancer UK request | Breast Cancer UK

NHS Choices amends article following Breast Cancer UK request

Published 20 Jul 2015

Breast Cancer UK are delighted  to report that following the receipt of our letter below, NHS Choices has decided to amend the article on the risks posed by everyday exposure to a cocktail of chemicals.  Crucially, NHS Choices now acknowledges in their headline that “Everyday chemicals may contribute to cancer risk”, and have provided a more accurate summary of the research carried out by the Halifax project.    

The letter below was emailed to NHS Choices on 29th June 2015

Re:  Article on NHS Choices:  “No evidence 'cocktail of everyday chemicals' causes cancer”

I write on behalf of Breast Cancer UK in regard to the above article that appeared on the website, NHS Choices, on Thursday 25th June 2015.   The article contains a number of inaccuracies that we believe should be corrected. 

Breast Cancer UK understand that the intention of the article is to explain to members of the public the facts behind the Mail Online coverage of scientific research which suggests exposure to mixtures of some everyday chemicals may increase risk of cancer.   However, in their efforts to dismiss the Mail coverage the author of the NHS Choices article also downplays and misconstrues a set of significant and major scientific reviews into the safety of chemicals and their potential impact on human health.

Bad reporting should not be confused with bad science and flawed reporting should not diminish the results of the scientific research itself.   Did the author of the NHS Choices article read the paper which was published in Carcinogenesis, or did they base their article solely on what was published in the Mail Online?   NHS Choices should focus on clarifying potential inaccuracies in news coverage and on helping consumers to make their own informed choices based on the facts.    Whilst some of the article does this, there are a number of statements which are at best misleading and worst, quite simply inaccurate:

The headline; “No evidence ‘cocktail of every day chemicals’ causes cancer”, is inaccurate.   It is widely accepted that biological and environmental factors contribute and interact with one another to increase cancer risk.  There is now growing global concern that exposure to harmful chemicals and particularly hormone disrupting chemicals (EDCs) could be contributing to an increased risk of many diseases including cancers (WHO 2012, Brunel 2013).   Whilst the role that hormone disrupting chemicals such as triclosan and phthalates play in cancer continues to be the subject of debate, NHS Choices is wrong to say there is “no evidence” at all.  

The statement that the study “found no conclusive proof that they were definitely increasing cancer risk” is misleading and betrays a misunderstanding of both the intentions and conclusions of the study.    The study itself did not ever set out to find conclusive proof that combinations of chemicals cause cancer.    The researchers wanted to find out more about the combined and additive effects of chemicals that whilst not considered carcinogenic on their own might have cancer-promoting effects when combined with others – and they found evidence in 50 of the chemicals tested that this was the case.  It is irresponsible of NHS Choices to misconstrue the science in the way the article suggests.  As you clearly state further down the article, the researchers concluded that “further research was needed” because of concerns about the role these chemicals may play in increasing cancer risk.   They certainly did not conclude that there was no risk at all. 

Neither the researchers nor the Mail Online actually suggest avoiding sun cream or hand cream – but do say that some ingredients that are used in these products currently need to be re-evaluated for their safety.    It is wrong to imply that the scientific researchers are suggesting people avoid using sunscreen.

Finally we ask that you revise the wording at the end of your article, which appears to suggest that “drinking too much alcohol” is effective at reducing risk of cancer. 

It is predicted that 1 in 2 of us will suffer from cancer at some point in our lives – the NHS should be doing all it can to try and reduce the risk of cancer.   Strengthening our understanding of chemicals such as EDCs and how they interact with each other and our bodies will help us to identify and take steps to eliminate some of the chemical causes of cancers.  It is disappointing that NHS Choices has not used this opportunity to inform consumers of scientific concerns, and supported the call for more research in to this area.  Only when we know more about the causes of cancer, and what changes take place in the body that increase our risk of it, will we begin to make progress towards stopping the tidal wave of cancer cases that will swamp the NHS in the next decade

Breast Cancer UK urge NHS Choices to carry out an urgent review of the contents of the article:

  • To change the misleading and inaccurate headline;
  • To correct the inaccuracies in the first two paragraphs and acknowledge more clearly both the aim and conclusions of the scientific research;
  • To amend the suggestion that too much alcohol can reduce cancer risk; and,
  • To consider using the article as an opportunity to support the call for further research into chemical exposures and cancer risk.   

I look forward to hearing from you.

Lynn Ladbrook

Chief Executive

Breast Cancer UK



WHO/UNEP (2012) State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals http://www.who.int/ceh/publications/endocrine/en/

Berlaymont Declaration (2013) http://www.brunel.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/300200/The_Berlaymont_Declaration_on_Endocrine_Disrupters.pdf 

Help us prevent breast cancer Make a donation now