Avoiding chemical exposure ‘only way to halt breast cancer’

The breast cancer epicemic cannot be reversed without considering women’s exposure to chemical cocktails throughout their lives, argued Professor Andreas Kortenkamp of the University of London, presenting new scientific evidence to the European Parliament.

“There is a breast cancer epidemic in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, and also in Western Europe the figures continue to rise,” Kortenkamp told to EURACTIV as he presented a study in the Parliament on 2 April.

Kortenkamp, the head of the Centre for Toxicology at the University of London, said medical doctors agree that better mammographic screening alone cannot explain the rise. Instead, he says, there is now “compelling evidence that natural and pharmaceutically applied hormones play a role in breast cancer, for instance, hormone replacement therapy (HRT)”. HRT, he said, “raises concerns about environmental chemicals and chemicals in consumer products that are hormonally active and behave biologically, in just the same way as the natural estrogens”. 

The chemical industry has long argued that trace amounts of chemicals found in peoples’ blood do not necessarily constitute a health risk as they are usually found in extremely low concentrations. And toxicologists are divided over how to interpret the data collected by so-called ‘biomonitoring’ studies. 

But Professor Kortenkamp cited new evidence about how these chemicals act together as mixtures. “If you combine a very large number of chemicals at very low doses, you can see significant hormonal effects with them. It can even happen that the hormonal strength of natural estrogens can be modulated.” 

Kortenkamp said he hoped the report would be taken seriously and “turned into political, regulatory action about these chemicals”. He acknowledged that in science there is always something to be further explained or clarified, but said he believes that there is already enough scientific evidence to start regulatory action while at the same time continuing scientific research in parallel. “You can’t wait for perfect clarity. That would be really unethical.”

Chemicals are not the only risk factor in breast cancer, as women’s decisions on when to have children also play a role. Likewise radiation, genes and alcohol also have a role to play, noted Kortenkamp. He added, however, that reducing exposure to chemicals is the only risk factor authorities can influence. 

He described the EU’s chemicals legislation REACH as one arena where legal action to regulate hormonally active chemicals can take place. 

In the framework of REACH, a candidate list of chemicals that present the most cause for concern over public health and the environment is currently being drafted for publication in autumn 2008. The first chemicals on that list will be the ones to be put on a priority list and need to go through special scrutiny before they are authorised. The priority list will be drafted based on the candidate list and is due for publication in June 2009.

“We would like to see hormone disrupting chemicals put on the candidate list,” said Lisette van Vliet, toxics policy advisor at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “Chemicals that mimic estrogen and destroy hormones need to be removed from the market or substituted by safer substances. REACH can help us to do this,” agreed MEP Avril Doyle. However, the industry has criticised the fact that, within REACH, a chemical could be banned even when equally performing or reliable alternatives do not exist.

Hormonally active chemicals can be found in drugs (like hormone replacement therapy, HRT and the pill), personal body care products, plastics or food.

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