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Reducing Your Chemical Exposure: At Home

Studies of indoor air and household dust show that we are exposed to a daily mix of synthetic chemicals in the home. This chemical mix comes from the air outside, from building materials and furniture, from the objects and products we use.

In this section of the web site, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation provides you with information about sources of chemical exposure in the home and how they may be linked to breast cancer risk, and with practical tips on how to limit your chemical exposure in food, plastics, and products for personal care, the household, and for children.

Research on the links between chemical exposure and human health is a complex and growing body of knowledge. A key area of concern is the role of known and/or suspected carcinogenicCarcinogen:
A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer to grow. Tobacco and alcohol (ethanol) are examples of carcinogens.
and hormone disruptingHormone disruptors:
Substances that mimic natural hormones in the body and may disrupt how the endocrine system works. Some pesticides, for example, are thought to be endocrine disruptors. Hormone disruptors are also known as endocrine disruptors.
chemicals in the development of breast cancer.  Research suggests that low-level exposures to these types of chemicals in our environment may cause unintended changes in our bodies, including disruptions in the hormonal systemHormone system:
The body's system of glands, each of which secretes a hormone that regulates the body. The hormone system is also known as the endocrine system.
, early puberty or altered mammary gland development—factors known as triggers for human breast cancer.

As consumers we have the right to safe products, to know what is in the products we use and, more importantly, if they may be harmful to our health. This knowledge would help us to make informed choices about the products we buy in order to reduce our exposure to chemicals that may increase breast cancer risk.  In addition to the tips you’ll find on this page, our resources section has more information and tools to help you get started with reducing your chemical exposure at home.

More research is needed to better understand the links between chemical exposures and the development of breast cancer. Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation supports the use of a precautionary approachPrecautionary 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.
as a way to apply new and growing breast cancer prevention evidence in our daily lives. By following the precautionary principle in your life, when scientific evidence is inconclusive you can put your health first and err on the side of caution.

It means choosing to take action now to limit your exposure to chemicals that may cause harm in food, plastics, and products for personal care, the household, and for children.


The food we eat can be one of the biggest sources of our daily exposure to environmental toxins. Evidence suggests that some of the pesticides and herbicides used on the food we eat may be carcinogenic and act as hormone disruptors.

In Canada, growth hormones (synthetic and natural) are approved for use in beef cattle, but not in dairy cattle, poultry (e.g. chicken) or pork. Some of these hormones may mimic the effects of estrogenEstrogen:
A female sex hormone that is produced mainly in the ovaries. A woman’s levels of estrogen fluctuate throughout her life. Estrogen has been linked to the development of breast cancer and may promote the growth of cancer cells.
, and have been shown to increase the growth of breast cancer cells and breast tissue in lab experiments and animal studies.

Understanding how chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and growth hormones in food may affect our health is a difficult task because we eat a variety of foods every day.  Research in this area is ongoing and there is still much more to learn about the impact that chemicals used in food production have on breast cancer risk. If you are concerned about what you eat and drink, there are steps that you can take to reduce your chemical exposures:


Chemical contaminants are released into the environment when plastics are made, as they are used and discarded, and when they are destroyed by incineration. Concern has been raised about the possible health and environmental effects of commonly used plastics.

Plastics that may be linked to breast cancer include polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and polycarbonate. Chemicals used or formed in making these plastics, such as phthalatesPhthalates:
An organic compound used in the manufacture of dyes, perfumes, pharmaceuticals and synthetic fibre and mainly used as plasticizers (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility and longevity). They are being phased out of many products in Canada, the US and Europe over potential health concerns.
, are known carcinogens or hormone disruptors and may leach from plastic when exposed to heat or pressure, or as the plastic ages. While progress has been made in reducing the use of harmful chemicals in some plastics products (e.g. BPA-free plastics), there is much more to be done and manufacturers need to continue to be encouraged to look for and use safer ingredients in their products.

You can reduce your risk by reducing your household’s chemical exposure to known carcinogens and hormone disruptors found in some plastics:

  • Learn what the recycling codes on plastics mean and try to avoid #3 (PVC), #6 (polystyrene) and # 7 (polycarbonate), chemicals that are associated with breast cancer risk.

  • Avoid using water bottles, drinking cups and food containers made with polycarbonate, BPA or polystyrene (Styrofoam).

  • Use ceramic or glass containers, instead of plastic, to microwave food to prevent leaching from the container to your food.

Those who work in industries that involve manufacturing plastics are at higher risk for breast cancer as a result of being exposed to larger amounts of these chemicals. Check out our page on reducing your chemical exposure in the workplace to learn more about how chemicals used in certain industries can increase risk for developing breast cancer and ways to reduce your risk.

Personal Care Products and Cosmetics

Think of your daily routine and the personal care products and cosmetics you use. What is applied to the body is also absorbed by the body—and may influence our risk of disease, including breast cancer. Synthetic chemicals can be found in everyday personal care products, from shampoo and lotions you apply to your hair and body to cosmetics you use on your face. Some of these synthetic chemicals are known hormone disruptors and some have been labeled possible carcinogens. Ingredients of concern include phthalates, parabensParabens:
A class of chemicals widely used in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and food industries. Parabens are controversial because they have the ability to mimic estrogen. They have been found in low concentrations in breast cancer tumours. The link between parabens and cancer is not conclusive and more research is needed in this area.
, triclosanTriclosan:
An antibacterial compound used in household cleaning and cosmetic products, furniture and other goods to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Research has shown that triclosan can stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells. The link between triclosan is not conclusive and more research is needed in this area.
, alkylphenolsAlkylphenols:
A family of organic compounds used in the production of detergents, plastics and some pesticides. They tend to persist in the environment and can have estrogen-like properties.
, “fragranceFragrance (or parfum):
A mixture of aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents used to give the human body, animals, objects and living spaces a scent. Some synthetic compounds found in fragrances cause inflammation, headaches, dizziness or nausea in people who are sensitive to them.
” or “parfumParfum:
A mixture of aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents used to give the human body, animals, objects and living spaces a scent. Some synthetic compounds found in fragrances cause inflammation, headaches, dizziness or nausea in people who are sensitive to them.
” and placental extractsPlacental extracts:
Controversial ingredient found in some cosmetics and beauty products. These extracts are derived from human or animal placenta:
organs that develop in female mammals during pregnancy to provide nourishment to the fetus. The placenta produces progesterone and estrogen, and there is some concern they may act as hormone disruptors when absorbed through the skin.

Here’s how changes in your daily personal care can help to limit your chemical exposure:

  • Use fewer or simpler products.

  • Consider making your own cosmetic and personal care products using safer ingredients. They’re inexpensive, fun and easy to make – and you know what’s in them.  Check out our resources section for links to DIY (do-it-yourself) recipes.

  • Read the label and avoid products with “parfum” or “fragrance.”

  • Beware of claims that a product is organic or natural: read the label to find out what’s really in it.

  • Explore websites like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to learn more about the safety of the chemicals in the products you use and to find safer alternatives.  Note: This is a U.S. database, and some Canadian formulations may contain different ingredients.

Household products

Some of the products we use to clean and decorate our homes and take care of our yards and gardens include ingredients that are carcinogens and hormone disruptors.

Here’s how changes in your household habits can help to limit your chemical exposure:

  • Switch to non-toxic household products: look for products with the EcoLogo or other credible certification of “green” products and services or ask the store about safer products.

  • Make your own cleaning products using safer ingredients. This can be an inexpensive and effective alternative to store-bought non-toxic household products. Check out our resources section for links to DIY (do-it-yourself) recipes.

  • Avoid chlorine bleach and bleach products: look for “processed chlorine free” on the label.

  • Use pesticide-free or non-toxic products in your yard and garden: avoid products with 2,4-D or malathion.

  • Choose fewer toxic paints that contain low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

  • When cleaning out your cupboards and disposing of products, take care to dispose of them safely. Many communities have recycling centres where you can drop off common household items including cleaners, batteries, paints, and furnishings for safe disposal and/or recycling. If you’re not sure if your community has a recycling centre, which products require special disposal, or how to safely dispose of your household products, contact your municipality for more information.

By limiting your exposure to chemicals that may harm your health, and by taking care to safely dispose of household products, you’re not only taking steps to protect your health, but the health of people in your community and the environment in which you live. Carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals found in these products contaminate landfills, wastewater, and the natural world around us, contributing to pollution and adding to the ways you can be exposed to these chemicals in the environment. 

For children

Research is looking into the possible effects of chemical exposures during key periods of human development: for the fetus, during infancy and puberty. Due to their size and stage of development, children and teenagers may be at a higher risk from the possible health effects of chemical exposures. Exposure to hormone disruptors in the environment may be linked to early puberty, including earlier onset of menstruation and breast growth in girls. Starting puberty early may increase breast cancer risk later in life.    

Here’s how you can limit children’s chemical exposure:

  • Look for BPA-free baby bottles and feeding cups.

  • Use ceramic or glass containers instead of plastic to microwave food and drinks for the family, to prevent leaching from the container to the food.

  • Use personal care products (e.g. shampoos, lotions) for your children that are free of known or suspected hormone disruptors and carcinogens.

  • Avoid buying second-hand, soft vinyl toys and childcare articles that children may put in their mouths.

  • When buying new toys or childcare articles, ask the store what their products are made from and, in the case of plastic toys, if they have phthalate-free articles. Toys made from wood, wool or organic cotton, or natural rubber toys are examples of safer alternatives.

Although traces of chemicals have been found in breast milk, the benefits of breastfeeding for women and their babies still vastly outweigh the risks.



Breast Cancer Fund. Chemicals in Food; Childhood and Adolescence; What is the Connection between Plastic and Breast Cancer?; Zeranol. Accessed April 10, 2014.

Eat Right Ontario. Hormones and antibiotics used in food production. Accessed April 10, 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. 

Griffin, S. (2007). CancerSmart 3.0. The Consumer Guide. Labour Environmental Alliance Society.

Hutchcroft, S. A. et al (Eds). (2010). Cancer and the environment: Ten topics in environmental cancer epidemiology in Canada. Chronic Diseases in Canada – Vol. 29, Supplement 1, 2010. Accessed June 17, 2014

Nudelman, J. & Engel, C. (2010). From SCIENCE to ACTION. State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment. Breast Cancer Fund. 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

Roy, J.R., Chakraborty, S., Chakraborty, T.R. (2009). Estrogen-like endocrine disrupting chemicals affecting puberty in humans – a review. Medical Science Monitor, 15 (6), 137-45.