Tackling an
environmental disease

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

Where 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.

Except for the original blueprint of our chromosomes, all the material that is us from bone to blood to breast tissue has come to us from the environment.
(Steingraber 1998)
In every man-made and natural environment occupied by humans today we are exposed to toxins, many of which are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the places we play in, the houses we live in, the machines we use, the cars we drive, the places we work in and from the ways we dispose of waste (landfills, incinerators).

'Metabolic [bodily absorption and breakdown] pathways for naturally occurring chemicals have been developed over millennia. This is not the case for the majority of man-made chemical compounds. These persistent toxic substances:

Medical oncologist Professor Dominique Belpomme reports that in France, 'between 70% and 80% of cancers are now due to environmental pollution from chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs], polyvinyl chloride [PVC], some heavy metals, nitrates, dioxins, some food additives and pesticides.'
(Pesticide Action Network (UK) 2004)

Living with environmental hazards

We can encounter synthetic chemicals when we rock our babies, relax on our sofas, watch TV, or enjoy a delicious dinner. All of us have an intimate relationship with synthetic chemicals, whether we want to or not chemicals that invisibly surround us in our products, our air, our water, food and land chemicals that are getting into our bodies even if we try to avoid them. (DiGangi 2004)
The most common-sense approach, according to Helen Lynn, Campaigns and Health Co-ordinator, Women's Environmental Network is that, 'at least until the laws allowing such toxic substances into our homes are changed, we'd be better off cleaning our homes with lemon juice, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, choosing furnishings, cosmetics and toiletries that are as natural as possible and demanding products that are not just fit for their immediate purpose but are safe in all respects.'
(The Guardian 2004)


Many of the 5,000 chemicals used in cosmetics and toiletries have not been properly safety-tested. Some can trigger allergic reactions or chemical sensitivity, others are suspected EDCs and have been linked to reproductive disorders, effects on the immune system and cancer.

One family of widely used cosmetics ingredients used as preservatives parabens have been found in a small study sample of human breast tumours. Parabens have since been removed from most brands of deodorants and antiperspirants but are still used in many other cosmetics products where they have the ability to penetrate the skin. ('Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours' Darbre et al pp5-13 Journal of Applied Toxicology Vol 24 issue 1 2004
related link:

Exposure to environmental carcinogens causes cancer, and it is therefore obvious that measures of primary prevention aimed at avoiding or drastically reducing exposures will be the most efficient way to prevent environmentally associated cancers.
(Tomatis & Huff 2001)


In the UK 'most of us spend an average of 90% of our lives indoors, the highest proportion of this being in winter, when indoor air pollution is at its worst. We are thus much more likely to breathe in and absorb into our bodies any gas, vapour or airborne particle that escapes into the air indoors. Without adequate ventilation, we are in danger of concentrating our own home-produced pollutants to the point where our health may be threatened.'
(Harland 1993)

Studies of household dust show that indoor air can be contaminated by:


The lesson of history is that, even in temperate Europe, soil is all too vulnerable to foolish and greedy farming practices.
(Humphrys 2001)
Little is known about the quality, condition and general state of the soil in Britain today. What is known is that depleted, contaminated or undernourished soil is unable to sustain life. Problems for health and environment are created by synthetic chemicals and materials that have been designed to persist in unaltered states in the environment. Whereas micro-organisms aid the gradual breakdown of natural compounds, the majority of synthetic compounds remain unaffected and unchanged 'because micro-organisms lack the enzymes necessary for their disintegration.'
(Fellenberg 2000)

Conventional farming practice uses a non-selective approach to pest and disease control. Broad-scale application of more than 2,000 synthetic compounds registered as pesticides tends to destroy not only the target but many other life forms both above and below ground, including the micro-organisms crucial to soil quality.


The quality of the water we drink and use to prepare and cook our food is vital to our health. As domestic water supplies are now controlled by private water companies there can be considerable variation in water quality. The quality of the water supplied to our homes will depend on many factors. As well as the main constituents of natural water oxygen, carbon dioxide and salts there are 'additives such as chlorine and aluminium nitrate that are designed to kill bacteria and settle contaminants. After this comes the increasing list of pollutants that are contaminating the sources of mains supply water, whether from ground water, rivers, lakes or reservoirs.'
(Harland 1993)

Carcinogens are formed as a by-product of the disinfection process in water treatment. 'Chlorine is, by far, the most common disinfectant used to treat drinking water; but other oxidants, such as chloramines, chlorine dioxide, and even ozone are also used. However, each of these disinfectants can also produce disinfectant by-products, which may be carcinogenic or otherwise deleterious.'
(Pepper et al 1996)


A National Health Service (NHS) publication informs us that many jobs today involve regular contact with known carcinogens, for example, 'benzene in rubber manufacture, wood dust from hardwood furniture, vinyl chloride used to make PVC, cutting oils used by metal workers these are just a few.' It further informs us that 'the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) obliges employers to inform employees of the presence of toxic substances in the workplace and to take reasonable steps to protect workers from exposures,' and that 'union safety representatives have the right to see industry data sheets on chemicals used in the workplace.'
(Health Promotion England 2001)

Yet we learn from a WWF report that 'workplace exposure is responsible for an estimated 6,000 cancer deaths a year Although Health and Safety legislation exists to control hazardous chemicals, evidence and experience indicates gaps in the regime.' (WWF 2003) The commonest cancer in women is not recognised as an occupational disease and is therefore not included in occupational health and safety guidelines. Thus, women cannot expect to be informed, either by their employers or their safety representatives, about workplace risks associated with breast cancer.

The increased jeopardy for women

Women can encounter repeated low-level exposures to specific carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting substances: These substances, through accumulation in body fat, could produce higher levels of toxicity than levels resulting from single or intermittent exposures to the same substance.

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