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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Convenience at What Cost: The Connection Between Chemicals and Breast Cancer

Posted on June 16, 2011

By Nancy Buermeyer and Connie Engel, PhD

This essay is in response to: What are we learning about the relationship between environmental toxicants and cancer? How should our regulatory system respond to this information?

After World War II, the United States experienced a chemical revolution. Stockpiles of chemicals developed to fight the war made their way into everyday commerce. Pesticides radically altered age-old agricultural and pest-control practices. Plastics brought modern conveniences into every kitchen. Synthetic chemicals made their way into our everyday products—from BPA in our food can linings to phthalates in our shampoo to flame retardants in our mattresses. It was better living through chemistry.

We now know that our bold rush into the age of synthetic chemistry has come with a hidden cost. Biomonitoring research (measuring chemicals in people) shows that our bodies are home to pesticides, plastics chemicals, heavy metals, flame retardants, and scores of other chemicals. Growing scientific evidence is finding links between chemical exposure and health concerns that are on the rise, including many cancers, metabolic disorders, asthma, learning disabilities, obesity, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

We embraced the chemical revolution without adequate caution. The federal government didn’t (and still doesn’t) require comprehensive testing to ensure a chemical is safe before it enters the marketplace. The handful of chemicals that have been tested have relied on the outdated rules of toxicology that assume the dose makes the poison—that what matters most is how much of a chemical we’re exposed to. We now know that low-dose exposure, the timing of exposure, the mix of chemicals we are exposed to and interactions between chemicals and our bodily systems and genetics all impact toxicity.

One of the most disconcerting set of chemicals linked to diseases, including breast cancer, are those termed endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs), including BPA, phthalates and other chemicals found in our everyday products. EDCs disrupt the body’s hormone systems, which regulate nearly every aspect of the intricate and exquisite process of life—from the awe-inspiring process of fetal development to the dramatic changes in puberty to the everyday processes of turning food into energy. Since one of the known risk factors for breast cancer is increased exposure to estrogen, it stands to reason, and the research bears out, that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals that look like estrogen to our cells would increase the risk of developing the disease.

EDCs are a perfect example of why the “dose makes the poison” logic is flawed. EDCs can sometimes exert their most significant effects at exquisitely small doses. This is no surprise, since the hormones normally affect physical processes at very low doses. Additionally, EDCs can exert more influence during periods of development when hormones orchestrate very profound transformations, like in utero brain or reproductive development or during puberty. In addition, combinations of tiny amounts of different EDCs can actually have a synergistic effect, multiplying one another’s effects beyond the mere sum of the individual exposures.

So how do we right the wrongs of past chemical policy? And how do we ensure that our chemicals-management system is responsive to new and emerging science? We need Congress and the Administration to act swiftly to fix our broken chemicals-management system. A good start would be to act on current and pending legislation to:

  1. Effectively regulate cosmetics and phase out the use of carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins from the products we put on our bodies every day
  2. Require transparency of cleaning product ingredients
  3. Phase out the use of EDCs, such as BPA, in food packaging
  4. Amend the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the law which has failed in its task of regulating industrial chemicals, to give EPA the authority to truly protect public health; and
  5. Support innovative solutions, such as green chemistry, to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives.

The burden of proof must shift to chemical manufactures to prove safety before chemicals enter commerce. Safety testing should incorporate the latest science, taking into account impacts like endocrine disruption. With government and industry action—driven by consumer demand—we need to usher in a new paradigm where chemicals are guilty until proven innocent. Our health depends on it.


Mary Saunders said ..

Virginia M. Paulsen, I highly recommend a visit to Theo Colburn, Ph.D., was profiled in The Eleventh Hour, a film that highlighted environmental research. Her work and her coordination have been important in pulling together independent researchers who were working in isolation but who were coming up with similar results. Rachel's Friends and other groups are working to get this information out to the general public. There is also an interesting Colbert interview with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times that chronicled the 100% incidence of feminized male fish in spots along the Potomac River. The harm from these chemicals is now well documented, in many places around the world.

June 22, 2011
Robert Roth said ..

Thank you for this important, clear & brief statement. I think the heart of the solution is your suggestion that "The burden of proof must shift to chemical manufactures to prove safety before chemicals enter commerce." I agree with Diane Dumanoski, co-author of Our Stolen Future, who says chemical-by-chemical regulation is not good enough; we need the Precautionary Principle, embodied in the above quote, which I understand is law in Europe. Congressional debate on the Delaney Clause in the 1950s is instructive: only six known carcinogens, so how could they not be banned in processed foods? But the Clause was repealed by Congress a few years ago; government uses the "negligible risk" standard, meaning that one cancer in a million exposures is acceptable. Apart from the implicit endorsement of human sacrifice in that standard, we now have 80,000 chemicals which can behave syngergistically, so that every chemical that causes one cancer in a million exposures can actually do lots more harm than that. Thank you again, I look forward to your book, in part for its treatment of radiation and cancer. The late John Gofman, working with Egan O'Connor, did a lot to document the causation of cancer by medical procedures such as X rays. I have not found time to review the full body of his research on mammograms (available at the site of Committee for Nuclear Responsibility), and hope your book will help with that, as my daughters approach the age when mammograms are recommended.

June 22, 2011
Larry Rose M.D. said ..

The most toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals are effecting soaring rates of cancer, reproductive disorders (autism spectrum, neurodevelopmental, birth defects, infertility, learning disabilities, low birth weights,spontaneous abortions, etc.), hormonal dysfunction, immune system diseases, and CNS diseases. We must demand better regulations of chemicals.

June 21, 2011
Richard Weiskopf said ..

Excellent essay. It states the problem very well. As we all know, the solution is not so easy. We need so much more public education, political will, and somehow to weaken the power that the chemical industry and corporations have over congress. Tall orders! but we should keep at it.

June 21, 2011
Sir Justin Burrows said ..

re: Virginia M. Paulsen, PhD Dear Virginia, it sounds like you are new to this area, so please visit this excellent report for facts and statistics Nancy & Connie - Great job!

June 18, 2011
Linda said ..

There is plenty of documentation out there. Just watch the Senate Hearings on the present legislation. Many hearings for the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. There were hearings in 2010 also because this legislation was re introduced because lobbyists spent millions trying to kill the legislation.

June 17, 2011
christina countryman said ..

Thank you for stating in scientific form that which I have always known by intuition. As much as an individual can make choices to minimize exposure to these compounds and contaminants there is no way to entirely avoid them in a saturated environment. Future generations have my heartfelt prayers.

June 17, 2011
Barry J White said ..

In petitions before the ASLB, Atomic Lisencing Safety Board, I have contended that low level radiation from nuclear plants has a cumulative affect on health for area residents to no avail. Can someone, or maybe they have, address this subject? Thanks, Barry J. White Vice-Pres, CASE Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Inc. Miami

June 17, 2011
David Krolick said ..

The solution can only be had when we have true campaign reform. As long as the corporatists control the congress, money will take sway over public health. The Koch brothers & their ilk will always hide, deny, delay, and when all else fails, find "scientists" to support their nefarious claims.

June 17, 2011
Dorothy Reichardt said ..

I definitely agree that "the burden of proof must shift to chemical manufactures to prove safety before chemicals enter commerce."

June 16, 2011
Dagmar Fabian said ..

Right on! I find it troubling that laws in Germany so often are ahead of the USA's. The power of corporations, industry -it's sickening!

June 16, 2011
Marlene said ..

We have to strengthen the EPA not cut it off at the knees as some in Congress are proposing.

June 16, 2011
Cha Brewer said ..

I wish you would name the specific product and which chemicals make them carcinogenic.

June 16, 2011
Virginia M. Paulsen, PhD said ..

This commentary lacks what I regard as necessary documentation, that is facts and statistics in support of its claims.

June 16, 2011
Zyxomma said ..

I'm surprised to find no mention of parabens, which are ubiquitous in skincare, hair products, and cosmetics. I've made sure my home is paraben-free, since parabens have been found in every breast tumor pathologists have dissected. Perhaps it's in another essay.

June 16, 2011
Patrick Hurley said ..

Good Essay. As Dr. David Servan-Schreiber has said in his book "Anticancer," we are in the midst of a cancer epidemic. Cancer cases are up 300 percent since World War II. Much of this can be attributed to environmental toxins.

June 16, 2011

Comments closed.