Exposures to Avoid
Chemicals and radiation linked to breast cancer can be found in everyday products that we use on our bodies, in our homes, workplaces and even in the food we consume as well as in air, dust and water. Some of these exposures are known or likely to cause cancer, while many others disrupt the body’s hormones.
What kinds of exposures are linked breast cancer?
Some chemicals and physical agents are known or likely to cause cancer—these are called carcinogens. Some disrupt the body’s natural hormonal processes, changing how the breast develops in ways that make it more vulnerable to cancer. And some upset the normal checks and balances that repair or kill damaged cells. Many exposures fall into more than one of these categories.
Carcinogens include physical or chemical agents that can cause cancer. The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) review the wide-ranging science on different chemical and physical agents to determine if the data indicates they are able to cause cancer.
Hormone disruptors, formally called endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs), are agents that disrupt the normal function of the body’s own hormones. Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers that regulate everything from breast development to pregnancy and metabolism. They include estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, thyroid hormone and more. Hormone disruption is especially relevant for breast cancer, because breast development in different life stages is guided by hormones. Exposures to chemicals that disrupt these normal processes can alter normal breast development in ways that lead to increased risk of breast cancer in later life.
Normally, the body is able to repair damage to cells. Cells are even programmed to die if they become badly damaged. The newest science considers that our routine exposures to mixtures of chemicals and physical agents may lead to cancer when each different exposure disturbs a different biological process that normally protects us from cancer.
Where are we exposed?
Everyday products that we bring into our homes, workplaces, and the air we breathe, water we drink and even household dust all contain chemicals and physical agents linked to breast cancer.
Chemicals linked to breast cancer include everything from bisphenol A in canned foods to perfluoroalkyl substances in anti-aging creams to flame retardants in computer monitors. They get into our bodies from the foods we consume, products we put on our skin, or from the air we breathe. Many of these chemicals are also found in household dust. Pharmaceuticals, such as hormone therapies and oral contraceptives, also contain chemicals linked to breast cancer.
Exposures at Work
Regardless of education, income or job roles, women can encounter chemicals and radiation linked to breast cancer at work. Research links some of these occupational exposures to increase risk of breast cancer. Women working in medical fields may encounter ionizing radiation, light-at-night, and solvents. Textile workers may use aromatic amine dyes, and those working in other manufacturing fields likely use solvents for some tasks. Transportation workers and first responders are likely to be exposed to higher levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), which are in vehicle exhaust fumes.
Chemicals from industrial process, agriculture, and other chemicals can make their way into air, water, and household dust. Studies have found that indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air and that household dust can be a major source of exposure. Many chemicals linked to breast cancer, such as DDT, PCB’s, PFAS chemicals, and flame retardants remain in the environment for decades or centuries. Even though many of these chemicals were banned in the last 50-60 years, many remain in the environment.
Glossary of Exposures
Check out our glossary highlighting exposures with the strongest evidence linked to breast cancer. For each, we describe what it is, where it’s found, the science linking it to breast cancer, who is most vulnerable and how to avoid the exposure.