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Primary prevention is the answer

News - 4/12/08


Campaigners ask ‘what does it take for the environmental and occupational risk factors for breast cancer to reach a tipping point’?

Sign up to push PM to ask leading breast cancer charities why they don't acknowledge environmental and occupational risk factors.

Campaigners awaiting a response to the petition on breast cancer prevention put to the PM have, once again, been sorely disappointed.

The petition raised concerns about the lack of acknowledgement by our leading cancer charities about environmental and occupational exposures as risk factors for breast cancer. It petitioned (1) the PM to ask the cancer charities why they continue to refute these as risk factors. The paltry response instead came from the Department of Health.

“We are not debating the science but debating the policy? It’s a very simple question, why do the cancer charities not acknowledge environmental and occupational risk factors?  And why are they afraid to address this?” asks the petition author and cancer prevention campaigner, Helen Lynn.

“What’s needed is a paradigm shift from their traditional narrow, lifestyle focused, thinking around breast cancer, towards primary prevention. Lifestyle and genetic factors only account for 30-50% of breast cancer cases. The current economic crisis is a stern reminder that the continuing rise in incidence, by more than 50% over the last twenty-five years, will put untold strain on an already overloaded NHS budget. Screening costs alone are in the region of £52 million. It is time now to focus on prevention.”

The response from the government stated that new chemicals are fully tested for safety before they enter the market, and a number of initiatives, such as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) (2) are in progress to update the database on existing chemicals. 

If this were the case, then we wouldn’t have such serious health effects from chemicals found in everyday products and in our workplaces such as Bisphenol A, Phthalates and Formaldehyde. How many more workers will be exposed to carcinogens before we see any benefits from the REACH legislation? (3) Given the long latency period for breast cancer we are not likely see the results of today’s exposure’s for 10-20 years.

Hilda Palmer from the Hazards Campaign says: “We are utterly sick of the government's worker blaming messages which places all the responsibility for cancer on individuals for eating and drinking too much, and not exercising enough. There is some individual responsibility but it is an untenable health policy while one fifth of workers are still exposed to carcinogens at work.  There is a great deal more action needed in enforcing employers’ legal duties to prevent exposure to chemicals which can cause harm to workers health. But we need to stop blaming workers and start looking at the much neglected occupational risk factors.”

The UK government and cancer charities decade-long, outdated mantra, in response to the mounting evidence linking breast cancer to environmental and occupational exposures, has been one of ‘no evidence’. Yet the EU Parliament (4) already recognise that environmental causes like pollution and chemical contamination must be considered in any initiative to combat cancer.

The ‘blame the patient’ approach’ listing only potential lifestyle risk factors is wearing very thin. “It’s a little known fact that exercise lowers the levels of oestrogen in the body. Lower oestrogen levels mean a lower life time risk of breast cancer. Yet we also know that certain chemicals in our homes, workplaces, and in the wider environment can mimic oestrogen and can add to or interfere with levels in the body. Our job is not to have to provide absolute proof, but their job is to act with precaution on the results of the science to date,” says Clare Dimmer, Chair of Breast Cancer UK.

Jamie Page of the Cancer Prevention and Education Society says, “How can the government say ‘There is little convincing evidence to indicate that environmental exposure to chemicals in the UK causes breast cancer or any other forms of cancer’?  There is a huge wealth of evidence implicating chemicals and pollution to cancer and other diseases in the scientific literature. There are many scientists and doctors who are worried about the environmental health effects of chemicals. Anti-smoking programmes have been very successful in bringing down lung cancer rates. We need to be doing the same for other cancers by reducing human exposure to harmful chemicals whether they be in consumer products, medical devices, gardening products or agricultural pesticides. I would like to see the UK government adopting a similar stance to that shown by the Canadian Cancer Society (5) who are giving guidance about reducing environmental exposure to harmful agents'.

What we would like to know from the cancer charities is, what the tipping point is for these risk factors? Who, how and when do they decide what goes on the risk factor list? Our question is not about how much evidence is needed but how much evidence is enough? We want to see some follow up to this totally unsatisfactory reply and a private members bill to address the issue of environmental and occupational risk factors being given equal footing.

Contact details:

Helen Lynn mobile: 07960033687 Clare Dimmer: 07779564689 (M) 02392 261208 (H) Hilda Palmer: 0161 636 7557

For more information: and

Notes to editor

1.  Petition wording and response
2.  The REACH legislation is based on the precautionary principle. But at its present rate it will be painfully slow in evaluating the thousands of chemicals already in use in consumer products. It only applies to some 30,000 of the100,000 chemicals in current use - that is, only to those substances made in amounts upwards of one tonne per year. This means that REACH only covers less than a third of existing chemicals. 
3.   “As a result of the systematic testing of new substances about 70% have been identified as being dangerous. On the other hand, as little is known about the intrinsic properties of existing substances it can be assumed that the majority of these chemicals cannot be properly classified today and adequate risk management measures cannot be taken”. (WHITE PAPER.  Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy. European Commission. COM(2001) 88 final).
4.  EU Parliament resolution – Combating Cancer in the Enlarged European Union Region. April 2008 Texts adopted : P6_TA(2008)0121
5.  The Canadian Cancer Society handbook, The Environment, Cancer and You.
6. The cost of the treatment of all cancers to the NHS was estimated at £2.1 billion in 2000/01.
7. For more information and scientific papers on environmental cancers please see
8. Hazards Magazine, Burying the evidence: How the UK is prolonging the occupational cancer epidemic

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Reg. address: Breast Cancer UK Ltd, Solva, Southwick Road, Denmead, Waterlooville, Hants. PO7 6LA UK | last updated: 09/12/2008