Cleaning products may increase breast cancer risk

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.

The cancer-cleaner link
For a recent study published in Environmental Health, researchers from the Silent Spring Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit, wanted to take a closer look at the link between breast cancer and the household cleaning products we use every day.
The group’s scientists used data collected from a long-running study of women living on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, between 1988 and 1995. The study group included 787 women who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and 721 women who had not.

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.

Breast cancer was twice as prevalent in women who reported using the highest amounts of all cleaning products, compared to women who reported using the lowest amounts.

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.

Cancers causers: Everywhere, but easily avoided
The main point of the study was to show that the chemicals used in cleaning products, many of which are untested for safety, require closer scrutiny, says lead author Julia Brody, PhD, director of the Silent Spring Institute.

“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.

But the reason the researchers chose to look at cleaning products in the first place, says Brody, is because strong laboratory evidence shows that many endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) used in cleaning products mimic estrogen, and have caused breast cancer cells to proliferate.

“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).

All these chemicals are easily avoidable, says Brody. “With cleaning products, it’s easy to use soap, water, baking soda, and vinegar, and you should choose fragrance-free products as well,” she says. But don’t stop there. “It’s very important for people to become involved in advocating for safer cleaning products,” believes Brody.

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