CANCER RISK? Chemicals acting like human hormones may raise the risk of breast cancer if exposures come at critical development times, such as in the womb or during puberty or pregnancy. Image: 2ndstreetphotography/Flickr
Exposure to chemicals early in life may alter how breast tissue develops and raise the risks of breast cancer and lactation problems later in life, scientists concluded in a set of reports published Wednesday.
The scientists are urging federal officials to add new tests for industrial chemicals and pesticides to identify ones that might disrupt breast development. In some cases, they said, mammary glands are more sensitive to effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals than any other part of the body, so low levels of exposure may be causing breast changes.
"Few chemicals coming into the marketplace are evaluated for these effects," said one of the reports, based on the findings of more than 60 scientists who convened a workshop in Oakland, Calif., in 2009.
Although many experts have long debated the role of the environment in breast cancer, the possibility that chemicals are changing how and when breasts develop is a relatively new concern for scientists.
Recent animal tests show that when rodents are exposed to some hormonally active chemicals in the womb or as newborns, their mammary glands do not grow normally, and the changes can slow or speed up breast development, impair breastfeeding or cause cancerous tumors later in life. Included are estrogens used as pharmaceuticals, phytoestrogens in plants consumed as foods and synthetic compounds including bisphenol A, flame retardants and pesticides, according to the report, which was published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Whether the same thing happens with human beings is largely unknown, although scientists say that rodent breasts develop much like human breasts, in the same stages.
"Animal studies demonstrate that early life exposure to hormonally active agents can lead to effects on mammary gland development, impaired lactation and increased susceptibility to cancer. However, the influence of environmental exposures on breast development outcomes is poorly understood, as is the relationship between breast development, lactational deficits, and breast cancer," wrote the authors, who are scientists from the National Toxicology Program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute.
In a companion report published Wednesday, scientists with three federal agencies who studied mice exposed in the womb to a chemical used to make Teflon found delayed breast development and impaired lactation. The effects were found in the mice at the concentrations detected in the water supply of an Ohio town near a DuPont Co. plant that uses the chemical, known as PFOA. Water supplies are not routinely monitored for it.
"If human exposures in distinct populations are approximating those provided in this study, concern over human breast health and lactational competency are justified," said the authors, led by Suzanne Fenton, a mammary gland expert at the National Toxicology Program.
Traditional animal tests required by federal officials have linked more than 200 chemicals and contaminants to breast cancer. But, in an editorial published with the three reports, Julia Brody and Ruthann Rudel of the Silent Spring Institute and Mhel Kavanaugh-Lynch of University of California said that those tests "may be missing many more" because they look only for tumors and "neglect development effects."
Breast cancer is the leading form of cancer in women, and some experts are concerned that chemicals acting like hormones may raise the risk if exposures come during critical development times. The most critical times are in the womb, and during puberty and pregnancy. During these times, hormones regulate how mammary glands grow, and if they grow abnormally, it may cause cancer and other problems later.