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Breast Cancer & the Environment

the case for primary prevention

Briefing notes from The Women's Environmental Network (WEN)

  • Breast Cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the UK.  An estimated 39,500 cases are diagnosed each year, compared to 38,900 new cases of lung cancer.tthe chances of a woman in the UK contracting breast cancer during her lifetime have risen from 1:12 in 1995 to 1:9 in 2001.

  • Each week in the UK 730 women are diagnosed and 254 women die from breast cancer.

  • Improvements in detection and treatment mean women who contract the disease now have a 73% chance of surviving for at least five years.

  • Improvements in cancer care have not reversed the rising incidence rate.

  • Unlike lung cancer, which can be directly linked to smoking in 80-90% of cases, there is no one identifiable cause of breast cancer.  Rather there are a number of potential contributory factors: genetic disposition, lifestyle, diet being those most commonly cited by politicians, health experts and the media.

  • Only 8-10% of cases are known to be due to genetic disposition;  Lifestyle accounts for only about 30% of all known cases; therefore between 50-70% of cases have no known cause.

  • There is a growing body of evidence linking breast cancer to the cocktail of chemicals in the air, water, land and in our food, to which we are involuntarily exposed every day.  These chemicals are commonly used in a range of pesticides, paints, plastics, household and personal products (see below for some examples).

Action Needed

Efforts to reduce the effects of breast cancer have concentrated on improving detection and treatment.  Great progress has been made; these are to be applauded and must continue.

We are calling for

  • greater priority to be given in Government policy to 'primary prevention' to reduce the incidence, not just the effects, of the disease.

  • a separate infrastructure to be created, with a multi-disciplinary approach involving all stakeholders, to begin work on a national strategy for primary prevention of breast cancer.

  • a new independent working group to push this agenda forward.

This could be done by adopting a precautionary approach and reducing the presence of possible contributory factors in the environment.  WEN believes this will not only stem or reverse the rate at which breast cancer is spreading, but will have knock on benefits for other cancers and the environment as a whole.  In the long term, health service budgets could benefit: if fewer people contract breast cancer, demand for treatment will fall and resources could be freed up for use on other health care.  We are calling for a separate infrastructure because it should not divert resources away from detection and treatment of the disease.

These demands came out of a forum, organised by WEN in November 2000 at the House of Commons, that brought together cancer specialists, patients, and others concerned about breast cancer.

Environmental links to breast cancer

This is just a summary of some of the evidence.

  • The increasing presence of oestrogen-mimicking chemicals in the environment through synthetic chemicals in pesticides, plastics, environmental pollution, household products and cosmetics.  Breast cancer is linked to lifetime exposure to oestrogen; the more oestrogen we are exposed to in our lifetime, the greater our risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Many of the 70,000 synthetic chemicals in regular commercial use are persistent and accumulate in body fat, including the breast.  Some 400 have been detected in human body tissues and secretions, including breast milk.  Of the fraction that have been tested, several thousand are listed as known or suspected carcinogens, and several hundred as damaging to the developing foetus.  A chemical may not, by itself, instigate cancer but it may work with other factors to contribute towards the risk of developing the disease.

  • Evidence exists in the United States and Norway of links between male breast cancer clusters and electromagnetic fields.

  • Synthetic compounds which have shown hormone-like activity in laboratory tests include organochlorine pesticides, furans and dioxins from incinerators, surfactants used in pesticides, paints, cleaning products and in paper and textile production, synthetic resins and plasticisers used in food packaging.

  • Pesticides regarded as potential breast cancer carcinogens include DDT, lindane, atrazine, endosulfan and chlordane. Most are banned in many countries but still persist in the environment.

  • Lindane is linked with serious health problems including breast cancer and may also disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system.  It is hazardous both to people who use it and those exposed to it in the environment or in their food.  Thanks to continuing pressure from the Ban Lindane Campaign, it will be phased out for agricultural and horticultural use throughout the European Union.  But it's still used as a pesticide in the South, especially on the cocoa crop, and still allowed for domestic use in Europe.


 Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) and Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) figures published 5/11/01.
 CRC website, 2001.
 'Putting Breast Cancer on the Map' report WEN, 1999
 Dr Vyvyan Howard, 'Synergistic effects of chemical mixtures...' The Ecologist, Vol 27, no 5, 1997.
 Louis Slesin, Microwave News, June 01, quoting existing research reports; PA Demers et al, 'Occupational Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields and Breast Cancer in Men, American Journal of Epidemiology 134, 1991.
 Ban Lindane Campaign website Nov 2001

For more information click here to link to the WEN website.

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