Contact: Tibby Reas Hinderlie
Communications Officer

More than 100 Environmental, Health, and Cancer Prevention Leaders Call on the National Cancer Institute to Recognize Chemical Exposures Can Increase Breast Cancer Risk

(November 23, 2020) On Tuesday, November 17, Breast Cancer Action delivered a letter signed by more than 100 public health and advocacy organizations, federal-level leaders, scientists, doctors, and public health professionals to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) urging them to recognize and publicly share the extensive research linking chemical exposure and breast cancer risk, diversify their editorial board to include toxicologists and environmental epidemiologists, update their approach to analyzing environmental risks, broaden the sources of information they use in their reviews, and meet with breast cancer advocates  and researchers to implement an action plan. The letter comes as the incoming Biden-Harris administration is setting forth its agenda of science and evidence-based policymaking and provides an opportunity for the federal government to address the injustices of breast cancer.

The NCI is the federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training. It oversees the largest cancer research fund in the world and hosts a leading go-to cancer information website. Its size and prominence influence the global strategy for how researchers, policymakers, health care providers, advocates and the general public understand cancer.

Despite established research identifying more than 200 chemicals that may increase risk for breast cancer based on their ability to cause mammary gland tumors in experimental studies, the NCI website ignores this critical information and simply states “Studies have not proven that being exposed to certain substances in the environment, such as chemicals, increases the risk of breast cancer.”

“Women and their families deserve the full story about the link between chemicals and breast cancer risk,” Breast Cancer Action’s Interim Executive Director Marj Plumb, DrPH, said. “By ignoring scientific information on chemical exposures, the NCI allows policymakers and healthcare providers to function under the false assumption that chemical risk factors don’t matter. We need all the information on breast cancer risks we can get if we are going to address the devastation and injustices of breast cancer, which disproportionally impact women of color and low-income women.”

“There is a well-established body of experimental, observational, and clinical research linking chemical exposure to breast cancer risk,” said Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, and Scholar in Residence, Duke University. “It is time for the National Cancer Institute to lead national cancer prevention efforts by sharing this research publicly. Doing this would not only provide important information to the public and health care providers, it could actually re-shape the way we think about our environment and public health policy in this country.”

Women in the U.S. have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer over their lifetime. This year alone, it is estimated more than a quarter million women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 42,000 women, as well as over 2,000 men, will die from it. The majority of women diagnosed with the disease have no inherited risk or family history for the disease.

Breast cancer risk is complex and develops from interactions between genes, lifestyle and environmental exposures, which includes chemical exposures. Breast cancer risk from chemicals is especially complex because people are exposed to numerous chemicals simultaneously, rather than one chemical at a time, as is often the focus in research studies.

Research supports reducing environmental exposures when possible. “We know that breast cancer is influenced by factors across the life cycle, beginning before birth,” said Dr. Julia Brody, Executive Director and Senior Scientist of Silent Spring Institute. “We don’t want to wait for evidence from a 50-year epidemiological study before we reduce exposures to chemicals that are already understood to activate biological pathways to breast cancer. Families, doctors, and policymakers would benefit from better information from NCI to strengthen breast cancer prevention efforts now.”

In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel released a report called Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now. Dr. Margaret Kripke, Professor Emerita of the MD Anderson Cancer Center and former member of the President’s Cancer Panel, noted “Ten years ago, when I was a member of the President’s Cancer Panel, we called for proactive protection from chemical exposure as an important step in reducing cancer risk. Since then, research has only strengthened this position. The National Cancer Institute needs to follow this recommendation and publicly share the wide body of research on chemicals that are likely breast carcinogens. This act would move the entire field of cancer prevention forward.”

The full letter and list of signatories can be read here:

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Breast Cancer Action is a national education and activist nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, CA whose mission is to achieve health justice for all people at risk of and living with breast cancer. The organization is calling for an updated language on chemical exposure and breast cancer risk from the National Cancer Institute as part of their October 2020 Think Before You Pink® campaign “We Can’t Be Pink’d: Say NO to Pink Policies.” Launching the first day of “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” Breast Cancer Action’s annual Think Before You Pink® campaign demands transparency from and pushes back on corporations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies claim to care about breast cancer while promoting products and policies that increase breast cancer risk. To Breast Cancer Action, October is better known as “Breast Cancer Industry Month.” Breast Cancer Action has a strict conflict of interest policy and refuses corporate funding from any company that profits from or contributes to breast cancer.