Policy on Breast Cancer and the Environment

The escalating incidence of breast cancer in industrialized countries1, and the discrepancy in incidence between industrialized and developing countries2 indicate that some of this increase may be explained by exposure to artificially created carcinogenic substances in our food, air, and water, and/or by exposure to radiation and electromagnetic fields. Studies have shown that the concentrations of toxins in breast tissue are not uniform geographically3, indicating that local environmental factors may increase the risk of breast cancer. Environmental factors have been largely ignored by science as possible explanations for the steady escalation of the incidence of breast cancer and other cancers.

Breast cancer is part of a larger cancer epidemic in the United States. In October 1994, the National Cancer Advisory board issued a report4 stating that

  • After a 23-year-long “War on Cancer” and a $23 billion investment in cancer research, the incidence of cancer is up 18 percent, and cancer mortality is up 7 percent.
  • By the year 2000, cancer will be the leading cause of death in the United States.
  • Every minute, another person in the United States dies of cancer.


The report noted that “government and society have responsibilities to identify and prevent workplace and environmental hazards, restrict advertising of unsafe products, require accurate product labeling and provide culturally targeted education about cancer risk and prevention.5”

During the past three decades, the lifetime risk of breast cancer has more than doubled, from 1 in 20 to 1 in 8.6 The known risk factors for breast cancer7 explain less than 30 percent of the cases that occur.8 There is no cure for breast cancer, even for women who are diagnosed before any detectable spread of the disease. The 46,000 American women who die each year from breast cancer are failed attempts at cure. In the absence of a cure, and in order to control an epidemic that threatens all of our lives, we must focus on cancer prevention.

Breast cancer is not one disease. It is a complex group of diseases that occurs in an environmentally complex world. We are exposed to multiple chemicals and radiation sources in the course of our daily lives. The extent and type of exposure depends on where we live and work. Poorer communities — both urban and rural — shoulder an unequal share of the burden of exposure to toxic materials.9 These complexities may make it difficult to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between specific toxins and breast cancer. But even epidemiologists in search of these links have pointed out that scientific uncertainty should not be the basis for inaction on a critical health issue.10 With the health and lives of so many at stake, we must adopt a public health approach — a precautionary principle — making policy changes based on the weight of the evidence. Such a principle was used in policy changes regarding the dangers of smoking, even though the precise mechanism of cancer causation has never been scientifically explained.

The weight of the evidence linking environmental carcinogens to breast cancer and other cancers requires immediate action. Failure to adopt a precautionary approach based on this evidence — to act now rather than waiting for absolute proof — will exact an enormous human and economic toll on us, our children, and generations yet unborn.

The challenge of breast cancer in an environmentally complex world requires innovative and collaborative approaches in addressing this issue politically and scientifically. Breast Cancer Action is committed to advocating for the reduction of exposure to environmental factors associated with breast cancers and other cancers, and will work with other organizations similarly committed. BCA supports the reduction and ultimate elimination of exposure to identified environmental carcinogens, and advocates legislation, regulation, research, and education necessary to accomplish this goal.

Approved April 12, 1995 by the Breast Cancer Action Board of Directors.


1 Kelsey, J. (1993) Breast cancer epidemiology: summary and future directions. Epidemiologic Reviews 15 (1):256-263.

2 Ibid.

3 Falck, F., Ricci, A., Wolff, M., et al (1992) Pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyl residues in human breast lipids and their relation to breast cancer. Archives of Environmental Health 47: 143-146. Wolff, M. et al (1993). Blood levels of organochlorine residues and risk of breast cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 85 (8): 648-652.

4 The Subcommittee to Evaluate the National Cancer Program, Cancer at a crossroads: A report to Congress for the nation, 1994.

5 Ibid, p. 17.

6 American Cancer Society, 1994 California Facts and Figures, p. 28.

7 Family history of breast cancer, early menarche, late menopause, late age at first pregnancy, childlessness, obesity in postmenopausal women.

8 U.S. General Accounting Office (1991). Breast Cancer, 1971-1991; Prevention, Treatment and Research. GAO/PEMD-92-12.

9 Griffith, J., Duncan, R, et al. (1989) Cancer mortality in U.S.counties with hazardous waste sites and groundwater polllution. Archives of Environmental Health 44: 69-44. Hall, N., and Rosenman, K. (1991) Cancer by industry: analysis of a population-based cancer registry with an emphasis on blue collar workers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 19: 145-159.

10 Davis, D., Bradlow, H. (1995) Avoidable environmental links to breast cancer. in Stoll, B. Reducing breast cancer risk in women, Kluwer. Davis, D. and Freeman, H. An ounce of prevention. (1994) Scientific American, September, p. 112.