Seven tips one researcher says can help you reduce your risk of breast cancer

Living on Earth

Here's a sobering fact: breast cancer is the leading cause of death among US women between the ages of 35 and 54 — and rates are rising.

Though obesity and genetics account for some of the risks, much of the danger comes from repeated exposure to certain chemicals in our homes, air and water.

Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, is the co-author of a new paper outlining ways people can reduce their risk. She says says the list of problematic chemicals is surprisingly large, but some simple precautions can help reduce the risk.

Brody and her colleagues assembled a list of 216 chemicals that have been shown in animal studies to increase mammary gland tumors. They then narrowed the list down to 100 chemicals that women are exposed to every day.

“We’re talking about chemicals that are in air pollution, diesel exhaust, gasoline, perfluorinated compounds ([those are in non-stick and stain resistant surfaces], some flame retardants and a variety of chemicals that are in consumer products and workplaces,” Brody explains.

From the study, Brody developed seven tips to reduce exposure to many of these breast carcinogens:

1. Lessen exposure to fumes from things like gasoline.

“It’s very important for people to understand that air pollution is actually a breast cancer issue,” Brody says. “One of the most important areas we found was the number of breast carcinogens in gasoline and in auto exhaust and diesel exhaust. These chemicals include benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are priorities on our list of breast carcinogens.”

Brody says one way to reduce our exposure to these chemicals is to limit our use of gasoline-powered tools. She suggests using an electric lawn mower or a high-efficiency vehicle.

“We can also take action at the community level,” Brody notes. “For example, you often see buses or cars idling in front of a school. If those engines are turned off then the kids and the parents who are picking them up are not exposed so much to these breast carcinogens.”

Slightly more difficult is reducing exposure to the chemicals released in our own homes. Cooking and cleaning aren’t normally activities we consider hazardous to our health, but they certainly could be.

In regard to cooking, there are two things we can do, Brody says.

2. “Turn on the ventilation fan so you’re exhausting the PAHs and the smoke out of your house. The other thing is to cook at a lower temperature so you’re not creating char on your food."

"Delicious as it may be, it does contain breast carcinogens. If you just cook at a lower temperature, or marinate before you cook, that will reduce your exposure,” she says.

3. Find a dry cleaner that doesn't use PERCs or other solvents.

As for housecleaning, Brody says many questionable chemicals are found in consumer cleaning products.

“[These chemicals] end up in house dust — and we inadvertently end up eating it,” Brody say.

4. To cut down on dust, remove shoes at the door, vacuum with a HEPA filter and clean with a damp rag or mop.

“Kids, of course, are especially exposed to house dust, because they’re crawling around on the floor and putting their hands in their mouths," she adds. But even adults are consuming a fair amount of house dust.”

Brody adds that we can prevent carcinogens entering our homes from the outside by putting a rug just inside your doorway

5. Install a solid carbon filter for your drinking water.

As always, drinking water is a source of concern. “We want our drinking water to be free of any pathogens that might cause sickness, but in the process of disinfecting water, we’re inadvertently sometimes creating carcinogens,” Brody explains. “We found, for example, that MX is created from the process of chlorinating drinking water.” 

The list of other ordinary dangers is dauntingly long — furniture, rugs, non-stick pans, stain resistant surfaces, flame retardants on clothing.

“We really need manufacturers to figure out a better way to make things,” Brody insists. “We don’t need these chemicals in our products.”

6. Avoid stain resistant furniture and fabrics.

7. Avoid polyurethane foam or ask for foam that doesn’t have flame retardants in it.

Beyond individual actions, Brody says there are ways that we, as a society, could work toward limiting exposure to carcinogens. Two big areas are increasing air pollution controls and vehicle fuel efficiency. The other main one, is changing the rules for chemicals in consumer products. Many people don’t realize, Brody says, that in the US companies can — and do — put chemicals into products without testing to check whether they might cause breast cancer.

“We have an 'innocent until proven guilty rule' for chemicals in consumer products,” she says. “There’s an effort at the national level to switch to a 'better safe than sorry strategy' that would require manufacturers to test chemicals and provide some evidence that they’re safe before they go on the store shelves. Those are some important changes that we need to enact.”

In addition, Brody says, “We desperately need reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act — but we need to make sure that what we do next is better than what we have now. ... We need new legislation that will actually protect health, that will require safety testing of chemicals before they’re put into use in consumer products that we all use every day.”

This story is based on an interview from PRI's environmental news magazine, Living on Earth.

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