Manifesto Pledge 3: Protecting Future Generations | Breast Cancer UK

Manifesto Pledge 3: Protecting Future Generations

Protect the unborn child from the harmful effects of chemical exposure

Breast Cancer UK is calling for official advice to be made available to pregnant and breast feeding women to help them minimise their baby’s exposure to harmful chemicals.

Chemicals can pass easily from mother to unborn child and it is widely acknowledged that exposure to alcohol, drugs and smoking during pregnancy can have detrimental effects on the developing foetus [1].   There is now increasing concern that certain chemical exposures during pregnancy could also have a detrimental effect on foetal development [2].  Yet as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recently pointed out there is no antenatal advice or guidance available for pregnant women about the potential risks that exposure to certain chemicals could pose for their baby [3].   

It is known that early life exposure to carcinogens and EDCs play an important role in determining the risk of developing breast cancers and other diseases later in life.   Exposure to these chemicals during early development (in the womb or in early childhood) can have permanent and irreversible adverse effects, especially if the exposure occurs during the period when specific tissues are developing [e.g 4,5,6,7].   The effects of exposure to carcinogens or EDCs in the womb may not always be evident at birth, but could manifest later in life, including during adulthood. There is also increasing evidence that EDCs can lead to epigenetic changes (changes which affect gene expression without directly altering the DNA sequences) which may be passed from generation to generation [8].  Therefore, exposures that cause changes now could have far reaching effects for decades and generations to come. 

Studies have also found that chemicals are present at higher levels in babies and young children compared to adults [9].  This is partly because of hand to mouth activities of young children and also because their systems are still developing and they are unable to metabolise or rid their bodies of the chemicals as efficiently or effectively as adults.

Whilst it is very difficult to prove conclusively that exposure to certain chemicals in the womb or during childhood causes ill health and breast cancers later in life, research indicates a need for precautionary action.  In order to help ensure we are giving our children the best start in life, practical guidance on why and how we should reduce our exposure to hazardous chemicals must be made easily available to all pregnant women, parents, clincians and carers.

Breast Cancer UK is calling for:

  • The next UK Government to recognise that exposure to hazardous chemicals is a public health issue and take steps to reduce in-utero (in the womb) and childhood exposure to hazardous chemicals;
  • The next UK Government, together with Public Health England, Public Health Wales, NHS Health Scotland and the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, to develop and implement a comprehensive programme of education and practical advice for pregnant and breast feeding women to help them reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals;
  • The next UK Government to conduct an assessment of childhood and early developmental exposure to EDCs.

Back to 'Prevention is better than cure'

Read our advice on how to reduce exposures to harmful chemicals during pregnancy


[1] Bellingham, M. and Sharpe, R.M. (2013). ‘Chemical Exposures During Pregnancy: Dealing with Potential, but unproven, risks to child health.’ Scientific Impact Paper No 37.  (Accessed 5th February 2015)

[2] Barouki, R., et al. (2012). Developmental origins of non-communicable disease: Implications for research and public health. Environmental Health 11:42

[3] Bellingham, M. and Sharpe, R.M. (2013). op. cit.,

[4] Report of the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) (2013). ‘Breast Cancer and the Environment Prioritising Prevention Prioritising Breast Cancer’.

[5] Knower. KC, et al., (2014). Endocrine disruption of the epigenome: a breast cancer link Endocrine Related Cancer 21(2): T33-55.

[6] Darbre, P.D. and Charles, A.K. (2010). Environmental Oestrogens and Breast Cancer: Evidence for Combined Involvement of Dietary, Household and Cosmetic Xenoestrogens. Anticancer Research 30: 815-828.

[7] Soto, A.M. 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. PMC3933259/ 

[8] Barouki, R., et al. (2012) Op. cit.,

[9] WHO/UNEP (2012) State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals (Accessed April 14th, 2015)

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