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31 October 2017

New data review highlights the major role of working conditions in breast cancers

On 2 September 2017, a review of data on the environmental causes of breast cancers was published in the journal Environmental Health. An all-female team of researchers reviewed more than 800 studies. They point out that, over the past eight years, a large amount of data has been collected on the role of environmental exposures in the occurrence of breast cancers.

These environmental exposures come about in two different ways. They occur in working environments as occupational exposures and in the course of ordinary life as a consequence of industrial and commercial choices. There is therefore nothing accidental about them, and policies focused on eliminating these risk factors would very considerably reduce the incidence of cancers of the breast, which is the main site affected by cancer in women’s bodies.

Among the most frequent examples of occupational exposure, the authors cite endocrine-disrupting chemicals, night shift work, ionising radiation, passive smoking and many other chemical agents, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds used in pesticides, aromatic amines (found in cosmetics, among other things), benzene and various metals. Researchers have been able to identify increased concentrations of iron, nickel, chromium, zinc, cadmium, mercury and lead in tissue biopsies from women with breast cancer. Although no definitive conclusions are reached, the study also mentions the potential role played by electromagnetic fields.

It also highlights the weakness of tests used by industry to evaluate the toxicity of chemicals. Most legislation, including in Europe, does not insist on analysis of toxic effects on the mammary glands. This is a major gap impeding the identification of all substances that may contribute to the development of breast cancers.

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