9.28.2009 1:59 PM

10 Surprising Ways to Protect Your Family From Breast Cancer


By Janet Gray

The Daily Green recently invited Janet Gray, a professor at Vassar College and a board member of the Breast Cancer Fund, to share simple tips that can help reduce breast cancer risk factors. Gray developed the Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer project to communicate known and suspected environmental breast cancer risk factors to the general public. Here are some of the most surprising tips. For all of them, see How to Prevent Breast Cancer: 20 Risk Factors.

Start Early (Very Early)

healthy mother daughter

What causes breast cancer? Anyone who has been diagnosed with the disease, or watched a friend or family member have to deal with it, wants to know. Research has taught us that many widely understood risk factors play a role, including our genetic makeup and whether or not we've had kids or breast-fed. But these risk factors don't explain it all. A substantial body of scientific evidence indicates that exposures to common chemicals and radiation, alone and in combination, may contribute to the unacceptably high incidence of breast cancer.

Not only are exposures to particular chemicals and mixtures important, but the timing of these exposures may be critical. Breast tissue is developing from prenatal stages through the time that a woman gives birth and breastfeeds, and breast structures that have not gone through the full sequence of development are particularly sensitive to the detrimental effects of environmental toxins. The cancer usually doesn’t show up until adulthood, but the stage may well have been set in the womb, or early in childhood.

What can we do? This feature will help you identify some known and suspected breast cancer risk factors. Some of these tips apply mostly to middle aged or older adults – both women and men – who are at the age when diagnosis is most common. Other tips will help parents protect their children, even in the womb.

Photo: B2M Productions / Getty Images

Drink Clean Water

water faucet

Although drinking fluids is absolutely crucial to good health, and water is often the healthiest – certainly the lowest-calorie – option, using tap water rather than bottled water is important for both our health and for the health of our environment. If taste is an issue, filtered tap water is a solution.

Commercial water bottles – including the small ones we carry around and then throw away, the larger gallon-sized bottles we may buy for our refrigerators, and the larger 5-gallon polycarbonate containers found in offices and other public spaces – often are made from plastics that leach chemicals like Bisphenol A, which is known to mimic hormones, and which has been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer and other diseases. Leaching of chemicals from plastic bottles is particularly common when the plastic bottles are warm, as can happen when bottles sit in the sun. If you are using a plastic bottle and the water or other fluid inside it smells "plasticky", don’t drink it! Your nose is telling you good information about the presence of contaminants in the water.

Of course, there are loads of other reasons for not drinking bottled water whenever possible. Tap water is often as safe or safer than bottled water, as public water sources are closely monitored and the results of quality testing on these waters are available to the public. Similar testing and disclosure are not required for bottled water.

And of course, the plastic required for commercial bought bottled water is a huge drain on natural petroleum resources, and adds enormously to our communities' waste burden.

To take water on the go, invest in a cheap, high-quality stainless steel water bottle, or another reusable BPA-free water bottle.

Photo: Istock

Choose (Truly) Microwave-Safe Containers

microwave safe bowl

Despite the label on many plastic containers claiming that they are "microwave-safe", it is prudent to use either glass or ceramic bowls for heating foods in a microwave oven. Heating plastics can make chemicals used in their manufacturing to leach into your food. Even so-called "microwave safe" containers have been shown to leach Bisphenol A (BPA).

Laboratory studies with rats indicate that exposures to BPA, especially during prenatal through early adolescence, predispose an individual to increased risk for developing breast cancer. Most supermarkets now sell Pyrex or other glass food storage containers that are easy to heat, allow you to freeze, thaw and heat (in oven or microwave) food safely, and can be reused for years. When you do microwave your food, whether in glass or ceramic containers, cover the food with a piece of kitchen parchment paper, or other non-dyed, non-bleached paper product. Or just put a ceramic plate on top as a cover.

See 10 more "microwave safe" myths. Photo: Dave White / Istock

Eat Soy (But Not Too Much)

soy beans

Plant estrogens, also called phytoestrogens, are natural compounds found in many foods. There are two main groups: the isoflavones and the lignans. Isoflavones, which include genistein, are found in soy beans and are the most widely studied of the phytoestrogens. Lignans are found in flaxseed, cereals, fruits, and berries. Phytoestrogens are strikingly similar in chemical structure to the common estrogen estradiol and and can mimic many of the effects of the natural hormone. Most research on health effects of phytoestrogens, including effects on breast cancer risk, has been done on soy products and genistein.

Most (but not all) studies suggest that regular intake of soy, especially during adolescence, as a well-integrated component of a regular diet (as opposed to a dietary supplement like a pill), may be protective against breast cancer. On the other hand, some studies examining the effects of ingesting high levels of soy supplements (e.g., genistein pills or isoflavone protein extracts) suggest that this may lead to changes that increase the risk of breast cancer.

So eat a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in vegetables (preferably locally grown and pesticide-free!) including soy products. Introduce your children to soy products (soy flour, tofu, etc.) early in their development, as part of their regular diet. But stay away from concentrated or isolated forms of soy derivatives, including genistein pills.

Photo: Alina Solovyova-Vincent / Istock

Use Natural Cleansers

poison cleanser

Many household cleaning products, including chlorine bleach, contain chemicals that may be detrimental to our health. Just look at the labels: Many say "use in ventilated area", or "seek medical help if ingested", or "skin or eye irritant", etc. Unfortunately, there is very little regulatory oversight of cleaning products and many are very poorly labeled, with phrases like "secret formula" being used to tantalize the consumer into thinking there is special magic in the cleanser. In reality, many household cleaning products contain chemicals like alkylphenols (example: 4-nonylphenol) that are endocrine disruptors (endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones and have been implicated in increased risk for breast cancer and other health problems) as well as toxins that affect both our brains and our reproductive systems.

For many household tasks, simple baking soda (a gentle abrasive) or dilute warm vinegar work as well if not better than potentially toxic alternatives. For other suggestions see these guides at the Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer project and The Daily Green.

Photo: Istock / Photo Illustration by Gloria Dawson

Tune Up Your Car

car exhaust from a tailpipe

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (known as PAHs) are products of incineration found in air pollution, vehicle exhaust (particularly diesel), tobacco, smoke and grilled foods. Exposures to PAHs, especially from vehicle exhaust and gasoline fumes, have been linked with increased incidence of breast cancer in both women and men.

A recent study in western New York examined air-monitoring records from 1959 to 1997 to establish PAH levels in residential areas. This case-control study of 3,200 women (ages 35 to 79 years) concluded that exposures to high levels of PAHs either at the time of their first menstrual period or at the time they first gave birth, were associated with an increased risk of post-menopausal breast cancer decades later.

Of course, don’t smoke! And avoid being close to others who are smoking; second hand smoke is a major source of PAHs.

When purchasing a car, especially a used one, make sure that the emissions system meets or exceeds government standards. In particular, check that the computer system controlling the car’s emissions is fully functional and that the catalytic converter works properly. (Also check out the most fuel-efficient 2009 cars and SUVs and the weirdest car fuels that could replace gas.)

Finally, PAHs are also found in the char of heavily grilled meats and fish. So when grilling, use a slower roast method, and scrape off any char that results from cooking.

Photo: Matteo Natale / Istock

Eat Clean Fish

fish on ice

Intake of certain foods that may contain high levels of PCBs and dioxins should be limited, especially for pregnant women and children. Both are known carcinogens that have been linked with increased risk for breast cancer. Although PCBs have been banned from production and use in the US since the 1970s, they remain in our environment, including our rivers and lakes. PCBs bioaccumulate, meaning they are more concentrated in predatory species than in prey, so they can be highly concentrated in fish at the top of the food chain.

If eating locally caught fish, eat smaller varieties such as bluegill, pumpkinseed, stream trout, smelt, and yellow perch. Limit consumption of fish that are fattier (and more likely to accumulate PCBs) like lake trout, or fish that are bottom dwellers like catfish. These latter species are more likely to be contaminated with chemicals including PCBs. Consult fish advisories published by the Environmental Protection Agency or state health and wildlife agencies before eating fish caught in local waters. Before heading to the fish counter, consult nonprofit groups that monitor contaminant levels in fish.

Some farmed salmon and sea bass have been shown to have particularly high levels of PCBs; opt for wild fish for these varieties.

In general, careful preparation and cooking can reduce the amount of PCBs consumed. Fillet fish by removing as much fat as possible. Also cook using methods such as baking or broiling in a pan with a rack, rather than frying – frying may actually seal some of the toxic chemicals within the remaining fat of the fish, while other methods may ease the cooking off of natural fats, leading to the dripping out of accumulated chemicals.

Photo: Grant V. Faint / Getty Images

Avoid (Most) Canned Foods

canned food

In addition to being found in many plastic bottles, Bisphenol A is also found in the epoxy resin liner of most canned fruits and vegetables. The BPA from this lining has been shown to leach into the vegetables in the can. Studies have shown that amount leached is enough to cause breast cancer cells to grow and proliferate in the lab.

One company that makes BPA free canned beans is Eden Organic, showing that the technology is there to make cans for most fruits and vegetables without using BPA-contaminated products.

Another reason for buying fresh or frozen vegetables is that they tend to have few preservatives and less added sodium. And buying fresh vegetables means you can talk directly with the farmers to learn more about what pesticides and other chemicals they use (or don’t use) during the growing season.

Photo: Istock

Avoid Dry Cleaning Chemicals

dry cleaning shirt

Studies on Cape Cod have indicated that women who have been exposed to perchloroethylene (also called PCE or PERC – pronounced "perk") through their water sources, have an increased risk for breast cancer (pdf). PERC is the most common chemical used at dry cleaning shops. It accumulates in our body fat and may therefore remain in our bodies for long periods of time. In addition to long-term effects on health, including cancer, shorter term exposures to air-borne PERC can cause skin irritation, as well as dizziness and headaches.

To decrease your exposure to PERC, try to buy clothes that don't require dry cleaning. Before buying clothes that may need dry-cleaning, find out more about the material from which the items are made, and see if dry-cleaning is really necessary. Manufacturers often put this on the label to prevent liability because they must accept the return if a garment shrinks or loses its shape. Gentle wet washing (even in cold water) and air drying may be sufficient to counter problems of shrinkage or damage.

If you are using a dry-cleaner, find out what kind of solvents they use. If they use PERC, try to find a cleaner that uses a different process such as wet-cleaning, liquid CO2, or silicone. Note however, that there is considerable controversy over how much safer some of the alternative process really are.

If you get your clothes dry cleaned with PERC or other organic substances, be sure to remove the plastic packaging from your clothes and air them out, preferably outside of your home. Also, many fabrics that say, "dry clean only" don't require it.

Also avoid spot removers or carpet cleaners that contain PCE.

Photo: ballyscanlon / Getty Images

Use Stainless Steel or Cast Iron Cookware

stainless steel cookware

Aluminum is a metal that mimics estrogen. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that aluminum can cause direct damage to DNA in several biological systems. Although studies have not shown a direct causal link between aluminum and breast cancer risk (little work has been reported in this area), breast tissue has been shown to concentrate aluminum and it is found in highest levels in the quadrant of the breast near the underarm region, the same area where the highest proportion of breast cancers are originally diagnosed.

Use alternatives to cooking utensils made out of aluminum, especially those that are older. Instead, use pots or pans made out of stainless steel or cast iron. Newer anodized aluminum pots and pans are considerably safer than older, non-anodized forms as the process of anodizing prevents the aluminum from leaching into food as it is being cooked.

One other possible source of aluminum in breast tissue may be use of underarm antiperspirants. Try to avoid using underarm cosmetics that contain aluminum. Check for safer alternatives at the Environmental Working Group’s Safe Cosmetics database or use home-made solutions like diluted baking soda.

Find a natural deodorant that really works. Photo: Cuisinart

More Breast Cancer Prevention Tips

See more breast cancer risk factors, including radiation from medical scans, cadmium in batteries, phthalates in older toys, unlisted ingredients in cosmetics and sunscreens, and chemicals in many pesticides and weed killers.


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