Information on this webpage is drawn from our 2005 report: Breast cancer - an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention, available free as a pdf, see Downloads. For current statistics and data, see our homepage.
Experts agree that most cancers are caused by our bodies or parts of them being exposed to certain substances over long periods of time. These cancer causing substances are called carcinogens.
The chemical agents of cancer have become entrenched in our world in two ways: first, and ironically, through man's search for a better and easier way of life; second, because the manufacture and sale of such chemicals has become an accepted part of our economy and our way of life.The main source of human exposures to carcinogens today is man-made chemical compounds. By 1985 it could be stated as a fact that 'nearly all of the synthetic [man-made] chemicals regularly used in industry today did not exist 40 years ago [in the 1940s]. Of the 45,000 toxic chemicals listed by the US National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1980, 2,500 were identified as carcinogens, 2,700 as mutagens [causing genetic change] and 300 as teratogens [causing malformation of an embryo]. Less than 7,000 had been adequately tested.
This is old, not new knowledge. Yet it was only during the last 15 years of the 20th century that medical science began to associate the unprecedented growth rates of many diseases with modern chemicals. While in the same 15-year period some chemical compounds were banned or reduced (in number and use) through tighter regulations, man-made chemicals continued to be developed and marketed in an ever-widening range of products and applications. The universal application of man-made chemicals in every sphere of modern life has made exposure to them an unavoidable, lifelong reality for each one of us. The vast majority of industrial chemicals have never been tested for their potential to cause or promote cancer.
Chemicals and breast cancerSynthetic chemicals are in some cases proven to harm – and in other cases suspected of being harmful – to human health for a range of reasons:
- the majority are based on carbon, and for this reason, are particularly dangerous to us because being based on carbon, the chemistry of all life, they readily enter human tissues and seriously disrupt the body's complex processes and complex chemical reactions.
(Harte et al 'Toxics A-Z' 1991)
- many of those which have been tested are known or suspected carcinogens
- increasing numbers are found to disrupt the function of the endocrine (hormone) system. This group has particular significance for hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer
- some are both carcinogenic and hormone-disruptive e.g. atrazine, an agricultural pesticide widely used in the UK
- the increasing numbers found to 'persist' (remain a long time in the environment) as a result of being designed to be 'stable compounds' which are therefore not broken down in the environment by micro-organisms and in the human body by metabolic processes
- the increasing numbers found to be 'bioaccumulative' (build-up in the body, mostly in fatty tissue). Chemical compounds that accumulate in living tissues increase in number and concentration as they move up through the food chain. It follows therefore, that humans, at the top of the food chain, will have the highest concentrations
- the capacity of many to cross the blood-brain and placental barriers
- the increased risk of toxicity resulting from the combined effects of synthetic chemicals on the body.
'adverse effects observable in the pattern of human disease, both in foetal malformations and the increase in the incidence of cancer – particularly in young people – and we can observe that those changes have taken place over the same period of time as the introduction of these novel chemicals.'
Several hundred chemicals are found in a wide range of commercial products and conditions we unknowingly encounter in our daily lives. Often overlooked by regulators is the variation in effects on a population from similar exposures, as recorded by biochemist and cancer researcher Ross Hume Hall:
'Individuals vary greatly in their susceptibility to toxic chemicals, and the differences between men and women can be punishingly large … Women thus can fall victim to legal limits of residues of pesticides and waste chemicals in their supermarket grapes or in their apple juice. Even at their best, EPA [Environmental Protection Agency, USA] regulations disregard the susceptibility to cancer of 50 per cent of the population.'
(The Ecologist 1998)
Assured by periodic statements from government and industry about the safety of regulated chemicals, and lacking the information to challenge such assurances, most of us are quite unaware that:
'little has been done to prevent exposure to carcinogenic chemicals in the environment, despite ample evidence that chemical pollution of our air, water, food and the workplace is the major cause of cancer.'
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Reg. address: Breast Cancer UK Ltd, Solva, Southwick Road, Denmead, Waterlooville, Hants. PO7 6LA UK | last updated: 05/10/2006