Tackling an
environmental disease

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Primary prevention is the answer

Common carcinogens and endocrine disruptors


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.

Most of us are unknowingly and unavoidably exposed to carcinogens and EDCs from the following sources and consumer products on a daily basis. We absorb these substances into our bodies through the respiratory tract, the gastro-intestinal tract and through the skin.


Industrial chemicals

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) EDC/B/P: APEs are used as surfactants to lower the surface tension of fluids so they can foam or penetrate solids. They are used in the manufacture of textiles and paper, and are found in paints, industrial detergents, pesticides, herbicides, plastics, insulating foams, cosmetics, nappies and sanitary towels (as wetting agents), shampoos, hair-colour products, shaving gels and spermicides.

Atrazine C/EDC/B: Atrazine is a pesticide approved for use in the UK, where it is used extensively on food crops. It is one of 20 pesticides commonly found in drinking water, and residues have been found on radishes and carrots.

Benzene C: A colourless, volatile, carcinogenic liquid derived from petroleum (crude oil) and coal tar. It is in the top 20 highest-by-volume industrial products. Benzene is used industrially as a fuel (gasoline) and a solvent, and is used in the manufacture of many other products styrene, plastics, resins, synthetic fibres, some rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides. It is an ingredient in waxes, resins, oils and paints.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) EDC/B/P : Used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics (used to make food and beverage containers) and epoxy resins; also used in a wide range of products e.g. white dental fillings, nail polish, food packaging, lenses (eye and safety glasses), water filters, adhesives, water pipe linings and flooring. BPA is an ingredient in resins used for lining cans of food and has been found to leach into certain food products e.g. peas, mixed vegetables, mushrooms.

Chloroform C/EDC/B: Chloroform is used industrially as an extracting agent and solvent, as the working fluid in industrial refrigeration systems and in the manufacture of cosmetics, dyes, drugs, fluorocarbons, glues and pesticides. Chloroform is an ingredient in medicinal/pharmaceutical products such as cough syrups, liniments, mouthwashes and toothpastes, and in domestic cleaning products containing bleach. Because chloroform is widely distributed in air and water, we are exposed to it in air emissions from pulp/paper and chemicals and drugs manufacture, vehicle exhausts, tobacco smoke, burning of plastics, and evaporation from polluted waterways. We are also exposed through water sources such as tap water, showers and swimming pools.

Ethylene Oxide (EO) C/EDC: Ethylene Oxide is an important industrial chemical used mainly in the manufacture of other chemicals and chemical products such as antifreeze, polyester, solvents, detergents, and polyurethane foam. It is also used as a fumigant (foods and spices), as a steriliser (medical and dental), and for pest control (textiles, books, furniture, product packaging). It is found in breast implants (as a result of the sterilising process), food residues, pest control products, cosmetics and food packaging. General environmental exposures come from food residues, tobacco smoke and air emissions from combustion of materials containing EO. It was banned from use as a pesticide in 1991.

Formaldehyde C: Used as preservative, germicide, disinfectant, fungicide, defoamer, tissue fixative, fumigant (glasshouses), fabric finish, soil sterilant (mushroom houses), silage additive, and bactericide (kills bacteria). Formaldehyde is found in household cleaners, cosmetics (nail varnish), personal care products (soaps, deodorants), plastic foams (cushion fillings, insulation), fabrics (leather, furnishings, clothing, tea bags), building products (plywood, particle board, flooring), decorating products (paints, sealants, pigments) and furniture. Exposure to formaldehyde in the general environment comes from vehicle exhausts, smoke (tobacco, coal, wood), dust and vapours off-gassing (being released) from construction, insulation and interior decorating materials, fashion and furnishing fabrics.

Organochlorines (Ocs) C/EDC/B/P: Chlorine is a naturally occurring substance. Chlorine is combined with hydrogen and carbon to form organochlorines. Its manipulation and use in forming artificial chemical products has had devastating effects on the environment that we are only just beginning to understand. Ocs are used in a vast range of everyday products from pesticides to plastics, detergents, cosmetics, bleaches and shampoos.

Parabens (Alkyl Parahydroxy Benzoates) EDC/B: A group of chemicals used as preservatives in most cosmetics, personal care products (deodorants, shampoos, toothpastes, moisturisers) and some foods and drinks (pie fillings, beers, jams, pickles).

Phthalates C/EDC/B: Phthalates are a group of chemicals used extensively in industry. Because they are classified as 'inert' there is no product-labelling requirement for them. Their main use is in plastics manufacture, to soften and make flexible rigid plastics like PVC. Phthalates are also used in the manufacture of lubricating oils, detergents and solvents, and in intravenous tubing and other polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics.

They are found as ingredients of inks, paints, adhesives, and are used in cosmetic products as carriers for perfumes, skin moisturisers and skin penetration enhancers, to denature alcohol, and as volatile ingredients in hairsprays, nail polish and perfumes. Phthalates in packaging materials such as paper, board, cellophane and plastic can leach from food packaging into food contents. In 1999 the EU banned six phthalates from use in children's toys which are intended to be placed in the mouth by children under three years of age. Two of these phthalates, DEHP and DBP, were also banned in cosmetics from mid-2005 (EU Directive).

The phthalate DEHP is mainly used in the manufacture of PVC products e.g. disposable medical products (intravenous tubing, oxygen therapy systems) because it is cheap, flexible and clear. Because it does not bind with the plastic, DEHP can leach out of a PVC product. The general population is exposed to DEHP in air, food, and water as a result of off-gassing from products and emissions from industrial facilities. Human exposure to DEHP begins in the womb when DEHP crosses the placenta.

Polycyclic Musk Compounds (synthetic musks) C: A group of petrochemicals used as fragrances to substitute natural musk in cosmetics, personal care products and detergents. Musk xylene is a carcinogen, and the most acutely toxic compound in the group.

Styrene C/EDC/B/P: Raw materials for styrene production are derived from the petrol and coal-tar industries. One of the most widely used industrial chemicals, styrene is used as a starting material in the manufacture of a wide range of plastics polystyrene foam, synthetic rubber, plastic food wrap, photographic film, car parts, PVC piping, insulated cups, plastic bottles, spectacle lenses.

Styrene is used in adhesives, inks, cooking utensils, floor waxes and polishes, copier paper and toner, decorating materials (varnishes, putty, paints), metal cleaners, asphalt, petrol products and carpet backing. We are exposed to styrene in the general environment by emissions from vehicle exhausts, tobacco smoke, incinerators and industrial sites, and by vapours from plastic and plastic foam products (off-gassing).


Pesticides constitute one of the largest groups of toxic, manmade chemicals to which we are routinely and inescapably exposed. 'Pesticide' (officially referred to as a 'plant protection product' since 2003) is a generic term for a group of chemical compounds that are formulated specifically to kill or alter the growth rates of living organisms. Most pesticides are fat-soluble, and many have been shown to be carcinogenic and hormonally active. The concerns of scientists such as Rachel Carson about the potential harm to human health from pesticides were widely refuted and discredited by industry and science in the 1960s. She warned then that new synthetic insecticides 'have immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body They destroy the very enzymes whose function is to protect the body from harm; they block the oxidation processes from which the body receives its energy; they prevent the normal functioning of various organs; and they may initiate in certain cells the slow and irreversible change that leads to malignancy.'
(Carson 1962)

More than 40 years later, Marion Moses, scientist and founder of the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco, wrote: 'The toxic impact of pesticides on women's health is only now emerging from decades of scientific and regulatory neglect Long-term, low-level exposures (to pesticides) that do not cause acute illness are linked to chronic diseases, cancer in children and adults, adverse reproductive outcomes, Parkinson's and other neurological diseases, among others.'
(Jacobs & Dinham 2003)



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Reg. address: Breast Cancer UK Ltd, Solva, Southwick Road, Denmead, Waterlooville, Hants. PO7 6LA UK | last updated: 05/10/2006