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Growing Evidence On Toxic Chemicals And Breast Cancer Risk

The effect of synthetic chemicals on human health and the risk of cancer is a complex and growing area of research. Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation provides an introduction to some of the key topics in this area and how we can use this information in our everyday lives.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified over 100 known carcinogensCarcinogen:
A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer to grow. Tobacco and alcohol (ethanol) are examples of carcinogens.
(cancer-causing substances) in our environment, with many more suspected as probable or possible causes of cancer.

You may be surprised to know that most of the chemicals made and used in North America have not been assessed for their risk to human health or their impact on the environment. Since 1994, Canada has included health and environmental effects in its assessment of the risk of new chemicals. However, the risk-assessment approach looks at chemicals in isolation, whereas in real life we are exposed to a mix of chemicals at low levels every day. 

Cancer research and studies of workers’ health have proved that some chemical exposures cause cancer. A landmark Canadian study funded by Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and published in November 2012 in the journal Environmental Health contributes to this growing body of knowledge with research about the health effects of exposure to chemicals in the workplace. Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith led an international team that analyzed workplace risks in southern Ontario. This research links some workplaces with a significant increase in female workers’ risk of developing breast cancer.

Key Areas Of Breast Cancer Research On Chemical Exposures

Research is probing the effects of synthetic chemicals on human health, including factors that may increase the risk of breast cancer. The following are some of the key research areas that will help to deepen our understanding of the links between chemical exposures and breast cancer risk: 

Health First: Taking Precautions

The effects of exposure to synthetic chemicals on human health and the risk of cancer is a complex and growing area of research. More research is needed to better understand these effects, how they may influence the development of breast cancer, and how to protect against these risks in our daily lives.

When we face scientific uncertainty, we have options and we can act. If we think there is potential for harm, we can choose to take preventive action now – this is what’s known as the precautionary principlePrecautionary principle (precautionary approach):
An approach to preventing harm to human health and the environment when the scientific evidence is not conclusive. When we face scientific uncertainty, we have options and we can act. If we think there is potential for harm, we can choose to take preventive action now – this is what’s known as the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle is an approach to preventing harm to human health and the environment from chemical use and exposure, when the scientific evidence is not conclusive. It is a powerful tool that has been used to inform legal decisions and shape public policy. Some examples of this include bans on Bisphenol ABisphenol A (BPA):
An organic compound used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, along with other applications. Research has found that exposure to BPA can disrupt hormone levels in the body. In September 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance. Canada and Europe have banned BPA's use in baby bottles.
(BPA) in Canada, pesticide use in Canadian municipalities, and chemicals in cosmetics in Europe.

What can we do now?

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation supports the use of the precautionary principle as a way to apply evolving breast cancer prevention evidence in our daily lives. By following the precautionary principle in your life, when scientific evidence is inconclusive you put your health first and err on the side of caution.

Science may not yet have all the answers about chemicals and breast cancer risk but there are many practical actions and concrete steps we can take now to help reduce risk. We encourage you to take precautions that put your health and the health of others first. Start by limiting, when possible, your daily exposure to chemicals at home and in the workplace. 


Brody, J. G. & Rudel, R. A. (2008). Environmental Pollutants and Breast Cancer: The Evidence from Animal and Human Studies. In Breast Diseases: A Year Book Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1. Accessed June 17, 2014

Brophy, J., Keith, M., Watterson, A., Park, R., Gilbertson, M., Maticka-Tyndale, E., Beck, M., Abu-Zahra, H., Schneider, K., Reinhartz, A., DeMatteo, R., & Luginaah, I. (2012). Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: A Canadian case control study. Environmental Health, 11 (87). Accessed June 17, 2014

Gray, J. (Sixth Ed, 2010). State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment. Breast Cancer Fund. Accessed June 17, 2014

Griffin, S. (2009) Environmental Exposure: The CancerSmart Guide to Breast Cancer Prevention. Toxic Free Canada.

Gilbertson, M. & Brophy, J. (2001). Community Health Profile of Windsor, Ontario, Canada: Anatomy of a Great Lakes Area of Concern. Environmental Health Perspectives Supplements, 109 (S6), 827-843. Accessed June 17, 2014

Government of Canada. (Nov 2009). Overview of the Chemicals Management Plan. Accessed June 17, 2014

International Agency for Research on Cancer, Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Vols 1-100. Accessed June 17, 2014

Reuben, S. H. for the President’s Cancer Panel. (April 2010). Reducing Environmental Risk. What We Can Do Now. U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute. Accessed June 17, 2014

Schwarzman, M. & Janssen, S. (2010). Pathways to Breast Cancer: A Case Study for Innovation in Chemical Safety Evaluation. A report of the Breast Cancer and Chemicals Policy Project, produced by the University of California, Berkeley and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed June 17, 2014