Chemicals in Your Home May Cause Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • For years, we’ve been hearing that “environmental factors” might play a role in the development of breast cancer. Most of us probably thought, “Oh, they mean if you live near a toxic waste site.” Or “Yeah, maybe for women who encounter a lot of second-hand smoke at work…” As it turns out, our everyday environment might be more toxic than we ever thought. 

    “Environmental Factors in Breast Cancer,” a comprehensive review of scientific research on environmental factors that may increase breast cancer risk, is a study and paper created by The Silent Spring Institute, Newton, Mass., and published this month in the scientific journal Cancer, a journal of the American Cancer Society. It includes a database referencing 450 different studies involving the relationship between environmental factors and breast cancer, and it’s being cited as the most comprehensive roundup yet compiled regarding this complex issue. The paper’s introduction reads as follows:
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    “At the invitation of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, we reviewed studies of breast cancer and environmental pollutants… and animal studies that identify chemicals as potential mammary carcinogens. Databases developed in the review include information on 216 chemicals* that increased mammary gland tumors in animal studies and 450 epidemiologic studies (accessible at and Exposure to potential mammary carcinogens is widespread from chemicals found in consumer products, air and drinking water pollution, food, and women's workplaces… evidence is emerging for associations between breast cancer and polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and organic solvents.”

    *Of the 216 chemicals cited above:

    • 73 have been present in consumer products or as contaminants in food.
    • 35 are air pollutants.
    • 25 have been associated with occupational exposures affecting more than 5,000 women a year.
    • 29 are produced in the United States in large amounts, often exceeding 1 million pounds per year.

    More on PCBs from the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Web site:

    “The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has concluded that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens. The EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that PCBs are probably carcinogenic to humans.”

    More on PAHs from the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Web site:

    “The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may reasonably be expected to be carcinogens.”

    Well, that certainly gives you pause, doesn’t it? Do you see yet another possible breast cancer risk developing here? Let’s get down to basics, and see where we might find ourselves exposed to these chemicals that the government says “may reasonably be expected to be carcinogens.”

  • • PCBs were formerly used in the manufacture of fluorescent lights and electrical appliances, including refrigerators and TVs. Their use was halted in 1977, so it’s unlikely you’ll be exposed to PCBs from a television set; but if you have a very old fridge, one that’s maybe sat in the cellar for ages keeping cases of soda cold, be aware it may be leaking PCBs into the air. Ditto old fluorescent light fixtures. PCBs are also found in fish, meat, and dairy products. Fish caught in polluted rivers may have high levels of PCBs; cows, chickens, and other animals can absorb them in food they eat from contaminated soil. The greatest risk of exposure is from fish; when you eat fish, consider the source.
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    • PAHs are a byproduct of burning fires. You’ll most commonly be exposed by breathing in smoke from wildfires or wood fires; or eating grilled meat. Yes, that’s right; you’ve been hearing about the dangers of grilled meat, right? Here’s what they’re talking about. Surprisingly, PAHs can also be found in processed or pickled foods.

    • Organic solvents: This is a broad class of chemicals that you’re most likely to encounter in the following forms: dry cleaning fluid, paint thinner, nail polish remover, spot remover, some detergents, and perfume.

    So, why am I telling you all this? Because some women like to know ALL their risks, and try to avoid them. And some feel that life in general is a risk, and there’s no use trying to dodge every single bullet you may encounter. I fall into this latter group. Something’s going to kill me eventually, but I’m not going to make myself crazy worrying about it in the meantime. So I take a middle of the road approach. Do I eat a grilled hamburger once a week or so in the summer? Yes. Do I go fishing in contaminated lakes, in streams near leaching landfills, and then eat the fish I catch? No. Do I wear perfume? Yes, occasionally. Am I going to go down cellar and check those sputtering old fluorescent lights, and see if maybe I should replace them? Yes. Will I continue to have my clothes dry-cleaned? Well... maybe I’ll think twice about purchasing clothes that require dry cleaning, in the future.

    As always, life is a balancing act. And it becomes even more so when you add cancer to the equation. Should I eat this? Should I wear that? What are the consequences? No one knows for sure. All we can do each day is make our best guesses, and move on.

    For an accessible chart of carcinogens in the home and suggestions for how you might avoid them, click on the “breast cancer news” link at
Published On: June 04, 2007