Do Household Cleaning Products Increase Breast Cancer Risk?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of death for women. Research has identified a number of factors that may play a role in its development, but much about the causes of breast cancer remains unknown.
Environmental links have been identified, but they tend to be difficult to prove. A number of studies have linked chemical exposure to breast cancer, but the bulk of the research has focused on the chemicals women put directly on their bodies, such as those found in cosmetics, deodorants and shampoos, rather than on chemicals women may be regularly exposed to in their homes.
One study released last year however, revealed that regular use of common household cleaning products and air fresheners may double a woman’s risk for breast cancer. These findings came just a few months after the release of a groundbreaking government report stating that unregulated chemicals in the environment pose a serious threat to health and may increase the incidence of some cancers.
Researchers surveyed over 1,500 women — 787 of whom had breast cancer, and 721 of whom did not — to try to identify links between exposure to common chemicals and development of breast cancer. According to their findings, which were published in Environmental Health, breast cancer risk among women who reported the most use of household cleaners and air fresheners was double that of those women who reported the least use of such products.
The strongest associations were found with mold and mildew cleaners (such as those used to clean showers and bathroom tile) and solid slow-release air fresheners. (Of the women who reported regular use of air fresheners, 90% developed breast cancer.) Insect repellents, oven and surface cleaners were also found to increase risk, though to a lesser extent.
While these findings will need to backed up by additional research before they gain wide acceptance, they parallel previous findings in research on animals. Many of the chemicals found in cleaning products have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and contribute to breast cancer in animals. These chemicals include phthalates, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, terpenes, benzene, styrene, synthetic fragrances and some antimicrobial agents, said lead researcher Julia Brody, who is the executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit organization concerned about environmental links to breast cancer.
The researchers acknowledged that the study, because it was based on survey data, is imperfect because of something called recall bias. They asked the women to a) recall the extent to which they had used cleaning products, and b) whether they believed exposure to chemicals could cause cancer. Not too surprisingly, they found that women with breast cancer who who believed chemicals contributed to the disease were more likely to report heavy use of chemical-containing household products, which could indicate that their answer to the first question was distorted by their beliefs.
It’s quite possible, however, that these women were perhaps more accurate in their accounts, since they might just be more aware of their past exposures to household chemicals.
Here’s what Dr. Brody had to say about the matter:
“When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they often think about what happened in the past that might have contributed to the disease. As a result, it may be that women with breast cancer more accurately recall their past product use or even overestimate it. Or, it could also be that experience with breast cancer influences beliefs about its causes. For example, women diagnosed with breast cancer are less likely to believe heredity contributes ‘a lot,’ because most are the first in their family to get the disease.”
To confirm their findings, the researchers recommend that additional research on the effects of cleaning product use on breast cancer risk be conducted using different types of methodology.
In the meantime, it’s probably not a bad idea to give up using these chemicals in your home, at least on a regular basis, if not altogether. There are an ever-increasing number of effective, non-toxic (not to mention environmentally friendly) household products available to choose from. Seventh Generation, Ecover and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day are just a few of the more widely available brands. Or, you can clean house the way your grandma might have — a little vinegar and baking soda is all it takes! For more information about how to make your own cleaning products out of non-toxic ingredients, check out this article from Green America.
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