Breast Cancer

Chemical Exposure: Science Takes it Seriously Where Breast Cancer Is Concerned

+ Pamela Friedman

Acrylic, nylon, and other synthetic fibers could be dangerous at high levels-so dangerous that they increase the risk of breast cancer. At least that’s what one study seems to suggest.

The researchers studied over a thousand women, testing their levels of exposure while on the job to around 300 different substances. Those who had the highest exposure levels before the age of 36 had a higher risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. Women who were exposed to acrylic fibers seemed to have a seven-fold risk of breast cancer, while those exposed to nylon fibers almost doubled their risk.

Other dangerous ingredients? “Monoaromatic hydrocarbons (MAH),” which are crude oil byproducts. Things like benzene and toluene. Though this study was evaluating women’s exposure at the workplace, we are all exposed to these chemicals in the environment, particularly in areas contaminated with tobacco smoke and in high-traffic areas. We also find some of these chemicals in our personal-care products.

In this study, exposure to occupational levels of MAHs in the early decades of life also increased a woman’s risk of postmenopausal breast cancer-doubling it for each 10-year increase in exposure.

Researchers are highly cautious on these results. They warn that the findings could be due to chance or undetected bias. David Coggon, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Britain’s Southampton University, said studies of this sort “carry little weight in the absence of stronger supportive evidence from other research.”

So if the findings are so iffy, why bother with such a study? The scientists, from Quebec, Canada, say that the results illustrate how sensitive breast tissue is to chemical exposure-especially during critical child-bearing years. “Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that breast tissue is more sensitive to adverse effects if exposure occurs when breast cells are still proliferating,” the study reports. They suggest that further studies are needed to understand the role of chemicals in the development of breast cancer.

Our takeaway from this? It’s a confirmation that highly educated, professional researchers are taking chemical exposure seriously-particularly in trying to understand breast cancer. This study may be less about synthetic fibers and MAHs, and more about how we need to take steps for ourselves and our families to reduce our chemical exposure-and protect our health.

Have you taken steps to reduce your chemical exposure? Please share your story.

Photo courtesy Jom Manilat via

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