Everyday chemicals, hormones, and breast cancer: What is the link?

Breast Cancer

A new study suggests that some synthetic chemicals could increase the risk of breast cancer by stimulating hormones.

Another cell culture study joins the list of research investigating the link between environmental chemicals and breast cancer. Although it is too early to make bold claims, this article covers what experts currently believe.

We have exposure to dozens of chemicals daily. The air we breathe is made of chemicals — nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, among many others — and so is the water we drink. There are also many chemicals that we have created, such as aspirin, which is an effective pain relief drug.

Organizations including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rigorously test such chemicals under laws such as the Toxic Substances Control Act before they reach the consumer to ensure that they are safe.

However, could some of these chemicals have yet unexplored health effects?

Ruthann Rudel, research director at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA, and Silent Spring scientist Bethsaida Cardona started their research with that question in mind.

They sought to identify preventable causes of breast cancer and investigated which chemicals might contribute to an increased risk of this condition.

As part of their study, Rudel and Cardona went through data on 2,000 chemicals listed in the EPA’s Toxicity Forecaster, which is a program that screens chemicals for potential health hazards.

Their paper appears in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Main findings

In their review, the researchers found 296 chemicals that caused an increase in levels of estradiol, which is a form of estrogen and the major female sex hormone, progesterone levels, or both estradiol and progesterone in adrenal cell culture.

Of these chemicals, 71 caused an increase in both hormones. They included chemical flame retardants, dyes, fungicides, and pesticides.

Some of the chemicals implicated included:

  • 1,2-Diphenylhydrazine: This is a chemical that manufacturers use in the production of dyes, pharmaceuticals, and hydrogen peroxide.
  • Malathion: This is an insecticide in the chemical family known as organophosphates. People commonly use it in mosquito control.
  • Phosmet: This is an organophosphate insecticide that people use for protecting apple trees.
  • Oxyfluorfen: This is an herbicide with widespread use in agriculture, specifically for weed control.

“In this study,” Rudel told Medical News Today, “we used new data produced by EPA to identify commonly used chemicals that have been shown to increase the synthesis of estrogen and progesterone in cells in a dish because this is directly relevant to hormone receptor [HR]-positive breast cancer.”

“There’s been a fair bit of attention on identifying chemicals that bind to and activate the estrogen receptor — essentially mimicking estrogen — but no one had identified chemicals that increase the synthesis of estrogen or progesterone, so we used the new data to do that.”

The findings suggest that some of these synthetic chemicals could increase the risk of breast cancer by way of stimulating the two hormones linked to breast cancer: estrogen and progesterone.

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