Despite all the fund-raising walks and early-detection campaigns surrounding breast cancer, doctors and scientists still have very few clues about what exactly causes the disease.
While the evidence suggests that a poor diet and lack of exercise play a strong role, only 30 percent of all breast cancer cases are found in people who have those risk factors. And more and more evidence is showing that chemicals we encounter every day, from products like scented candles and cleaners, could have something to do with the remaining 70 percent.
All the women were asked standard lifestyle questions related to family history of breast cancer, diet, exercise, and socioeconomic status, as well as questions about the participants’ use of several classes of cleaning products, including solid and spray air fresheners, surface cleaners, oven cleaners, and mold and mildew products.
Women who reported using air fresheners and mold/mildew products were at higher risk of having breast cancer, especially those who used solid air fresheners and mold cleaners containing bleach. Surface and oven cleaners didn’t appear to increase breast cancer risk.
“This is the very first look at the link between these chemicals and breast cancer in humans,” she says. One of the questions asked during each interview was whether the women believed that chemicals could contribute to cancer.
Interestingly, the subgroup of women who had had breast cancer and who said that chemicals contribute “a lot” also reported some of the highest levels of cleaning-product use.
“We’re interested in the chemicals that mimic estrogen because estrogen is a known breast cancer risk factor,” she says. Air fresheners contain a variety of EDCs, including synthetic musks and phthalates. Mold and mildew cleaners contain EDCs such as triclosan (the primary ingredient in antibacterial cleaning products), phthalates, and petroleum-based surfactants (which help cleaners penetrate grime).