Tackling an
environmental disease

 HEA, UNISON, Co-operative bank and Scottish breast cancer campaign logos
Primary prevention is the answer

How are we exposed


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.


Food is a major source of human exposure to synthetic (man-made) chemicals, many of which are bioaccumulative, carcinogenic and disruptive to the hormonal system. Scientists have known about the connection between dietary contaminants and cancers for many years because 'both animal studies from the 1960s and human studies from the 1970s confirm the fact that these dietary contaminants cause cancer. Some studies show that carcinogens concentrate in breast tissue, while other studies prove the point in a different way by showing higher concentrations of these carcinogens in the blood of breast cancer patients.'
(Epstein et al 1998)

Toxicopathologist Dr Vyvyan Howard, a member of the government's advisory committee on pesticides, is concerned about the potential health effects of multiple pesticide residues on food and believes 'there is sufficient evidence already that the pesticide cocktail effect is producing changes. Exposure to chemicals that disrupt hormones in the womb could be the cause of the decreased age of puberty in girls and early onset of puberty is linked to a greater chance of developing breast cancer later in life.'
(Watson The Scotsman 2004)

The widely promoted view that high intake of dietary fat constitutes a risk for breast cancer is challenged by a large-scale 1987 study, based on the eating habits of nearly 90,000 nurses, which concluded that 'there is no association between dietary fat and breast cancer. However, US diets are contaminated with a wide range of carcinogens that concentrate in fatty foods and whose presence is not disclosed to the consumer.'
(Willett et al 1987 Epstein 1990)


The prevention of cancers attributable to occupational and environmental exposures is primarily achieved by regulatory action. Relevant measures include replacement of carcinogens with alternative chemicals or processes, improved ventilation A significant reduction in occupational cancers attributable to implementation of preventive measures has been demonstrated in many instances. However, there remains a burden of past exposure.
(United Nations 2003)
A review of more than 100 studies in occupational cancer, conducted over the past 25 years, concludes that 'few high-quality studies directed specifically towards women have been carried out to allow the unambiguous identification of occupational risk factors for breast cancer.' (Labreche & Goldberg 1997) Existing data about occupational risks for breast cancer may be limited, but when considered alongside long-term observations of health workers and employee health records, it does provide clear evidence of elevated incidence in certain occupations.

Occupational studies provide fairly consistent evidence for elevated risks associated with exposures to specific substances. For example, nurses represent one group with elevated risk because their work involves substantial exposure to chemicals.

Higher potential risk is associated with occupational exposures to solvents such as formaldehyde, methylene chloride and carbon tetrachloride, and to benzene, pesticides, styrene, acid mists, and some metals. Often overlooked white collar jobs involve chemical exposures common to indoor work areas, such as:

In terms of exposure to toxic chemicals, the highest potential health risks for women are to be found in industries that are the largest users of chemicals. These are chemical, micro-electronics and textile manufacturers the last two being major employers of women.

Because of the intensity of their potential exposure to toxic substances implicated in breast cancer, women working in the microelectronics industry producing components for expanding technologies in communications e.g. computers and cell phones, represent both high incidence and high risk categories for this cancer. The semiconductor (silicon chip) sector of the industry uses toxic metals, solvents, resins, gases, plasmas and acids in processes requiring hundreds of different chemicals, some of which are known or suspected carcinogens and EDCs.

Although studies of occupational health risks drawn from women's work histories and experiences are urgently needed, associations can be drawn from existing data to provide enough evidence:

Professor Karen Messing is one of many researchers in the field of occupational health calling for greater attention to the differences in response to occupational exposures between men and women.
Biological differences between the sexes may affect responses to workplace toxins. For example, bone, fat, and immune system metabolism as well as cardiovascular and endocrine function are all known to differ by sex. Little, however, is known about the implications of these differences for the effects of toxic exposures.
(Messing 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