Information on this webpage is drawn from our 2005 report: Breast cancer - an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention, available free as a pdf, see Downloads. For current statistics and data, see our homepage.
Because cancer is a multi-causal disease that unfolds over a period of decades, exposures during young adulthood, adolescence, childhood – and even prior to birth – are relevant to our present cancer risks.Human exposures to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors can occur at any stage of human development from conception to death. As well as differing from males – body weight, body mass, fat-to-muscle ratios, reproductive functions and hormones – women are particularly vulnerable to biological damage from exposures:
- during periods of illness or trauma
- during pregnancy
- during the foetal development, early childhood and pubertal stages of life
- in the period from puberty to first pregnancy
- in the period after menopause
- in old age.
The foetal stageNumerous studies show that:
- the foetus is exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of toxins from both the internal and external environment
- exposures, particularly to EDCs and carcinogens, at the foetal stage affect subsequent susceptibility to breast cancer, and to many other disease and developmental effects in later life.
Infancy to pre-pubertyIn April 2004 the Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP), representing more than 6,700 family doctors, published a comprehensive review of pesticide research.
This report identifies children as the group at greatest risk of serious illness and disease because of their constant exposure to low levels of pesticides in their food and their environment – the latter is as a result of the widespread use of pesticides in homes, gardens and public spaces.
Early development is further explained as a period of high-risk because, relative to their size,
'children are exposed to more toxic chemicals in food, air and water than adults because they breathe twice as much air, eat three to four times more food, and drink as much as seven times more water.'
Scientific knowledge about the exceptional vulnerability of children to lifelong, irreversible effects from exposures to environmental contaminants has made no impact on a regulatory system in which exposure levels deemed 'safe' for adults are still assumed to be equally safe for children.
Breast milkMore than 350 man-made contaminants have been found in human breast milk. Any chemicals stored in human body fat can potentially transfer to the newborn infant during breast feeding. Dr Sandra Steingraber, an internationally renowned scientist with personal experience of cancer, describes human breast milk as 'the most chemically-contaminated food on the planet.' She chose to breastfeed both her children, in the knowledge that despite the presence of toxins, 'breast milk is absolutely the best food for human infants. The data on the health benefits of breast milk are absolutely unanimous that babies who are breastfed are healthier, they die less often in their first year of life and they enjoy health benefits for a lifetime.' Use of formula milk as a substitute for breast milk is not a solution to contaminants in breast milk because it is also likely to be chemically contaminated.
If you pollute when you do not know if there is any safe dose, you are performing improper experimentation on people without their informed consent … If you pollute when you do know that there is no safe dose with respect to causing extra cases of deadly cancers, then you are committing premeditated random murder.
John Gofman MD PhD Professor of molecular and cell biology and physician University of Berkeley USA 1998
Critical periods in female developmentRadiation risks for girls during three critical periods have consistently been confirmed by studies showing that 'females exposed to radiation prior to puberty have a much greater risk of developing breast cancer than do older women subject to the same level of exposure … Radiation during the critical periods when breast cells are first forming prenatally or during early adolescence induces proportionally more neoplastic [abnormal] transformation of cells and is thereby more carcinogenic than exposures later in life.'
(Davis Axelrod Sasco Bailey Gaynor 1998)
'Breast cells are not fully mature in girls and young women prior to their first full-term pregnancy. Breast cells which are not fully mature bind carcinogens more strongly than, and are not as efficient at repairing DNA damage as, mature breast cells.'
(Clark Levine Snedecker 2003)
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Reg. address: Breast Cancer UK Ltd, Solva, Southwick Road, Denmead, Waterlooville, Hants. PO7 6LA UK | last updated: 05/10/2006