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6 Actions to Reduce Your Exposure to Cancer-Causing Chemicals & Environmental Toxins!

The following was developed and provided by the Breast Cancer Fund. This information was created on an Action Card that describes six steps that you and your family can take in your daily life in order to reduce your exposure to chemicals and other hazards in your home and your environment that are dangerous to your health.

There are no sure means of preventing breast cancer, but there are some practical steps - based on existing research that women can take in an attempt to reduce their risk of getting the disease or, in the case of those already diagnosed, to help reduce the risk of recurrence.

To read more details about each of the six recommended steps, or view some of the scientific sources behind the facts, choose one of the actions below.

  1. Practice Healthy Purchasing
  2. Know What's in Your Food
  3. Use Caution with Plastics
  4. Advocate for Clean Air
  5. Avoid Unnecessary Radiation
  6. Explore Alternatives to Hormone Therapies

1. Practice Healthy Purchasing

Don't bring toxic chemicals home from the store. Choose chlorine-free paper products to reduce dioxin, a carcinogen released when chlorinated products are produced or incinerated. Replace harmful household cleaners that contain bleach with cheaper, nontoxic alternatives like baking soda, borax soap and vinegar. Look for alternatives to chemical weed or bug killers -- they contain toxic chemicals that accumulate in our bodies.

Purchasing Alternatives
Many household items, including paper products, cleaning supplies and even some hair shampoos, contain carcinogenic chemicals. For example, spray paints and paint removers may contain methylene chloride, known to cause mammary cancer in laboratory animals according to the National Toxicology Program 2001. More and more of these products can be easily replaced with "natural" alternatives. Non-toxic alternatives to household cleaning and personal care products are available at your local health food stores and even in some large supermarkets. For more information on how to make your shopping more environmentally friendly, check out The Center for a New American Dream's Guide to Environmentally Preferable Purchasing. For practical, easy recipes for a healthy, toxic-free household, check out

The Need for Chlorine Free Paper
Stock your home and office with chlorine free paper products, labeled Processed Chlorine Free (PCF), which means that no chlorine or chlorinated compounds are used during manufacturing. There is evidence indicating a probable link between chlorinated chemicals, such as those found in certain paper products, and breast cancer. Check out Paper Choicefor more information on environmentally friendly paper products.

Bug & Weed Killers Harm More Than Bugs & Weeds
According to the National Academy of Sciences, of the 36 pesticides commonly used by Americans for non-agricultural purposes, such as on lawns, school grounds, golf courses and in parks, seven have been banned by 25 other countries. When these compounds are ingested, inhaled or absorbed, they migrate to our body fat and remain there, building up our body burden of toxics over time. Since breasts are mainly fatty tissue, toxics concentrate there. In Newton, Massachusetts, researchers at Silent Spring Institute found that women living in areas of higher incidence of breast cancer reported regular use of professional lawn services, termite treatments or home pesticides. [1]

Your Actions Make a Difference!
Consumers, business and hospitals should purchase products that are free from chemicals that are linked to breast cancer, products such as chlorine-free paper or plastic items made without polyvinyl chloride. These subtle changes in purchasing will mean fewer cancer causing chemicals will enter our homes, be disposed of in landfills, or be released in our air or water. Further, these actions will encourage industry to provide products that consumers want -- products that are not hazardous to our health.

[1] (Maxwell NI, Polk R, Melly SJ, Brody JG (1999). Newton Breast Cancer Study. Silent Spring Institute.)

2. Know What's in Your Food

Some pesticides used on fruits and vegetables have been linked to breast cancer. And estrogen-like hormones used in raising livestock expose us to hormones that increase our risk for the disease. Read labels, ask your grocer to stock organic produce and hormone-free meats and dairy products, and look for organic food at your local farmers' market.

Pesticides and Breast Cancer
An easy way to reduce the toxics that enter your body is to be aware of and avoid any pesticides or chemicals used on the food you eat. Research evidence suggests that simazine, a widely used herbicide in Florida, California and the Midwest that contaminates surface and groundwater after being applied to farmlands and may contribute to breast cancer. Simazine is one of the triazine herbicides, which also include atrazine and cyanizine, all of which have been shown by the National Toxicology Program 2001 to cause mammary cancer in laboratory animals. Lawn chemicals also may contain simazine. [1]

Before the EPA took action in 1972 and banned domestic use of DDT, a hormone disrupting pesticide, it had been sprayed for control of insects on farm fields and in swampy areas for more than 30 years. The early version of DDT, containing an estrogen-like form, also reached many homes as a residue on food. Much farmland remains contaminated to this day because DDT deteriorates very slowly in the soil. In fact, a 1995 study reported measurable levels of DDT residue in house dust in 82 percent of homes studied. [2] Although banned in many countries for agricultural use, DDT is still used in Mexico and other countries for malaria control and may contaminate food crops exported to the U.S. [3]

Healthy Meats
When we eat meat, poultry, fish and dairy products, we are also eating what those animals ate, including pesticides, growth hormones and contaminants such as dioxin, a carcinogenic pollutant known to disrupt hormone function. Because high levels of estrogen have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, it is important to avoid the estrogen-like hormones that are fed to cattle. Eating hormone-free beef eliminates the traces of hormones that can enter our bodies from cattle. Pork and poultry products also can be polluted by the contaminated living conditions in which in the animals are raised, and fish can contain mercury.

[1] (Stevens JT, Breckenridge CB, Wetzel LT, Gillis JH, Luempert III LG, Eldridge JC (1994) Hypothesis for mammary tumorigenesis in Sprague-Dawley rats exposed to certain triazine herbicides. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 43, 139-53.) [2] (Simcox NJ, Fenske RA, Wolz SA, Lee I, Kalman DA (1995). Pesticides in household dust and soil: Exposure pathways for children of agricultural families. Environmental Health Perspectives 103:1126-1134.) [3] (Lopez-Carrillo L, Blair A, Lopez-Cervantes M, Cebrian M, Rueda C, Reyes R, Mohar A, Bravo J (1997). Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane serum levels and breast cancer risk: A case-control study from Mexico. Cancer Research 57:3728-32.)

3. Use Caution with Plastics

Some plastics leach hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates into the substances they touch, and release carcinogens into our air and water during the manufacturing process. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics are especially dangerous in toys that children put in their mouths, so keep an eye out for nontoxic toys. Further, never put plastic or plastic wrap in the microwave, as this can release phthalates into your food.

The Truth about Phthalates
Phthalates, used to render plastics soft and flexible, are a family of hormone mimicking chemicals used in common household products. Phthalates which can be absorbed through the skin, are found in soft plastic "chew toys" marketed for infants and also in some varieties of nail polish, perfumes, skin moisturizers, flavorings and solvents. A recently released report by Coming Clean, the Environmental Working Group and Healthcare Without Harm showed the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to phthalates. Phthalates also have been found in wallpapers, shower curtains and furniture. For more information about this report, go to

A recent finding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed levels of phthalates in women aged 20 to 40 surpass the government's safety standards, suggesting that the long-term and frequent use of beauty products such as nail polish, hair spray, deodorant and perfume may be affecting the health of women of child-bearing age and their children. [1]

PVC and Dioxin
Certain plastic products in your home may also release dioxin, the name given to a group of highly toxic chemicals associated with cancer, reproductive disorders, immune system suppression, learning disabilities and other birth defects. Indeed, dioxin was officially declared a known carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2000. Dioxin is produced when polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic or other products containing chlorine are incinerated, an increasingly common method of waste management. PVC is used extensively in the manufacturing of food packaging, as well as in medical products, building supplies, household appliances, cars, toys, credit cards and rainwear. Avoid purchasing PVC products, which can be identified by the #3 recycling code. For more information about plastics in your home, check out

[1] (Blount BC, Silva, M.J, Caudill SP, Needham LL, Pirkle JL, Sampson EJ, Lucier GW, Jackson RJ, Brock JW (2000). Levels of seven urinary phthalate metabolites in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives 108(10):979-82.)

4. Advocate Clean Air

The soot and fumes released by factories, automobiles, diesel trucks and tobacco products contain chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are linked to breast cancer. Indeed, breathing in these compounds from secondhand tobacco smoke may increase your risk for breast cancer more than active smoking! Stay away from secondhand smoke, and advocate for stronger clean air protections.

Air Pollution and Our Health
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds found in soot and fumes from the burning of diesel and other fuels as well as in smoked and grilled foods appear to play a role in the development of breast cancer. In July 2000, researchers at Columbia University reported finding a close relationship between DNA damage from exposure to PAHs in breast tissue and increased risk of breast cancer. [1]

Secondhand Smoke
Tobacco smoke also contains PAHs, which may explain a potential link between increased breast cancer risk and both active and passive smoking. [2] Recent research offers even more reasons not to smoke or be subjected to secondhand smoke, including new studies that show active and passive exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of breast cancer. For example, researchers at Columbia University found a close relationship between the damage done to breast tissue DNA from exposure to PAHs and increased risk of breast cancer. Two other studies suggest that women who begin smoking cigarettes as adolescents face increased risk of breast cancer. [3] It is important to note that many breast cancer epidemiologists do not believe that smoking or secondhand smoke causes breast cancer because many studies have failed to show an elevation in risk. However, others point to technical problems with measuring exposure to secondhand smoke in these studies. Ultimately, because the existing evidence indicates a possibility of harm, it is recommend that you act on the evidence: Don't smoke, and limit your exposure to secondhand smoke.

[1] (Rundle A, Tang D, Hibshoosh H, Estabrook A, Schnabel F, Cao W, Grumet S, Perera FP (2000). The relation between genetic damage from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in breast tissue and breast cancer. Carcinogenesis 21(7):1281-89.) [2] (Ambrosone CB, Freudenheim JL, Graham S, Marshall JR, Vena JE, Brasure JR, Michalek AM, Laughlin R, Neomto T, Gillenwater KA, Shields PG (1996). Cigarette smoking, N-acetyltransferase 2 polymorphisms, and breast cancer risk. Journal of the American Medical Association 276:1494-1501. Morabia A, Bernstein M, Heritier S, Khatchatrian N (1996). Relation of breast cancer to active and passive exposure to tobacco smoke. American Journal of Epidemiology 143:918-28). [3] (Calle EE, Miracle-McMahill HL, Thun MJ, Heath CW Jr (1994). American Journal of Epidemiology 139(10):1001-07. Marcus PM, Newman B, Millikan RC, Moorman PG, Baird DD, Qaqish B (2000). Cancer Causes and Control 11(3):271-78).

5. Avoid Unnecessary Radiation

Ionizing radiation is a known cause of breast cancer. [1] Exposure is cumulative over a lifetime -- thus many low doses may eventually add up to a dose high enough to cause cancer. Diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, other X-rays, and CT scans involve radiation exposure. While regular mammography screening may benefit postmenopausal women, mammography for women in their 30s and 40s remains controversial. If you decide a radiological procedure is critical to your health, request a lead apron to shield the parts of your body not being X-rayed. Join us in our call for better methods of detecting breast cancer.

Radiologic Medicine
Radiation exposure is most damaging to cells during periods of rapid growth and development, therefore babies and children are at greater risk for long-term damage from x-rays. For example, x-rays of high-risk newborns expose these fragile infants to whole body irradiation. Other x-rays, fluoroscopy and a variety of visual scanning procedures also involve various levels of radiation exposure. CT scans of the body involve radiation exposure of the breasts and other vulnerable organs, particularly scans of the spine above the waist. It is important to ask questions before undergoing a radiological procedure, even though it may seem awkward at first. It's important to determine to your satisfaction that a radiological procedure is necessary to achieve your desired outcome. What is the benefit of the procedure to you and what dosage of radiation are you being exposed to? If the technician doesn't know the dose, it may be much too high.

Regular mammography screenings appear to benefit postmenopausal women in terms of increased survival from breast cancer. For women in their 30s and 40s, however, the risk of health effects from long-term radiation may be greater than the benefits. Clearly we need a risk-free detection method that does not expose us to known causes of cancer! Join TBCF in our call for an affordable, risk-free screening technology that can detect breast cancer earlier and more reliably than mammography and without radiation exposure.

[1] (Boice JD Jr, Monson RR (1977). Breast cancer in women after repeated fluoroscopic examinations of the chest. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 59:823-32. Aisenberg AC, Finkelstein DM, Doppke DP, Koerner FC, Boivin JF, Willett CG (1997). High risk of breast carcinoma after irradiation of young women with Hodgkin's disease. Cancer 79(6):1203-1210. Tokunaga M, Land CE, Tokuoka S, Nishimori I, Soda M, Akiba S (1994). Incidence of female breast cancer among atomic bomb survivors 1950-1985. Radiation Research 138:209-223.)

6. Explore Alternatives to Hormone Therapies

Women who have prolonged exposure to estrogens are at higher risk for breast cancer, and more and more studies show an increased risk when women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT), either estrogen alone or a combination of estrogen and progestin. Women who use both birth control pills and -- later in life -- HRT, may face an even greater risk of breast cancer than those who use neither. Explore your options with healthcare professionals.

Estrogen & Breast Cancer
Although estrogens are necessary for childbearing and for healthy bones and hearts, research has established that women who have prolonged exposure to estrogens are at higher risk for breast cancer. This includes women who begin to menstruate before age 12, do not reach menopause until after age 55, have children late in life or not at all, do not breast-feed or who use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause. A group of researchers in 1993 developed the hypothesis that since many of the personal characteristics associated with breast cancer were related to increased total lifetime exposure to estrogens, then the environmental chemicals that affected estrogen metabolism also contribute to the increased risk of breast cancer. [1]

Hormone Replacement Therapy
Since birth control pills and HRT were introduced, the lifetime risk of breast cancer has increased from one in 14 in 1960 to one in eight in 1997. On July 9, 2002 a new study by the Women's Health Initiative showed that Prempro -- a combination of estrogen and progestin, manufactured by Wyeth-Ayersts, Inc. -- increases a woman's risk for breast cancer by 26 percent after four years of use and also raises the risk for strokes, heart attacks and blood clots after short-term use. While the results of the latest Women's Health Initiative study focus solely on Prempro, dozens of studies in the last five decades have shown that various forms of HRT increase a woman's risk for breast cancer and other health problems.

It is important to note that progestins are often combined with estrogen in hormone replacement therapy to help decrease the known cancer risk of estrogen alone, which by itself significantly increases the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer. [2]

The Mystery of Birth Control Pills and Breast Cancer
Breast cancer risk increases for some women with use of either oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy. Studies suggest that women who have used both oral contraceptives and later hormone replacement therapy face an even greater risk than those who have not used either. [3] However, other studies have suggested no significant connection between oral contraceptives and breast cancer.

It's Not Worth the Risk
As women reach menopause, they should avoid taking any form of HRT to relieve their symptoms. And women who are already taking HRT should make a new decision on whether the symptoms they experience warrant the risks that HRT entails. This can only be done by stopping use of HRT in consultation with your doctor and learning the nature of whatever symptoms remain, as some of the discomfort may have subsided over the years.

Quitting smoking, eating a diet rich in soy products, fruits, vegetables and whole grains; limiting caffeine, alcohol and carbonated soft drinks; and exercising regularly all improve general health and help alleviate menopausal symptoms. When considering complementary therapies, do so in consultation with healthcare professionals who are knowledgeable about alternatives to HRT.

[1] (Davis DL, Bradlow HL, Wolff M, Woodruff T, Hoel DG, Anton-Culver H (1993). Medical hypothesis: Xenoestrogens as preventable causes of breast cancer. Environmental Health Perspectives 101(5):371-77.) [2] (Menopausal hormone replacement therapy and risk of ovarian cancer by James V. Lacey, Jr., Pamela J. Mink, Jay H. Lubin, Mark E. Sherman, Rebecca Troisi, Patricia Hartge, Arthur Schatzkin and Catherine Schairer. JAMA 2002:288:334-341.) [3] (Brinton LA, Brogan DR, Coates RJ, Swanson CA, Potischman N, Stanford JL (1998). Breast cancer risk among women under 55 years of age by joint effects of usage of oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy. Menopause 5(3):145-51.)