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U.S. report urges deeper look into breast cancer's environmental links

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A new federal advisory panel report makes a forceful case for more research into environmental causes of breast cancer, which was diagnosed in 227,000 women, killed 40,000 and cost more than $17 billion to treat in the United States last year.

Compiled by the congressionally mandated Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee, the report notes that most cases of breast cancer “occur in people with no family history,” suggesting that “environmental factors — broadly defined — must play a major role in the etiology of the disease.”

Yet only a fraction of federal research funding has gone toward examining links between breast cancer and ubiquitous chemicals such as the plastic hardening agent bisphenol A; the herbicide atrazine; and dioxin, a byproduct of plastics manufacturing and burning, says the report, prepared for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and released today.

“Prevention needs to be as important as other investments that are made in screening, treatment and access to care,” Jeanne Rizzo, co-chair of the committee and president of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund, said in an interview. “There really is a problem, and until we address it we’re going to continue to have a quarter of a million new cases every year.”

The report’s release comes three months after a Center for Public Integrity article detailing a study of female plastic automotive parts workers in Windsor, Ontario. That study found that women employed in the chemical-intensive industry were nearly five times as likely to develop breast cancer, prior to menopause, as women in a control group.

“That was essentially an uncontrolled human study,” Rizzo said of the Windsor workers. “We can’t do that. We need to learn from animal studies.”

Asked to comment Monday, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said, “We look forward to reviewing the report.”

At least 216 chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting substances like bisphenol A, have been associated with mammary gland tumors in animals. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are used to make plastics and pesticides and found in products such as furniture, metal food cans and cosmetics.

“National survey data show that many of these chemicals are present in the blood or urine of children and adults in the United States,” the committee’s report says, “and some EDCs are present in 100 percent of the people sampled.” Exposure to such compounds early in life can be especially dangerous, the report says

All told, some 84,000 chemicals are registered for use in the United States. But complete toxicological screening data are available for only 7 percent of these substances, says the report, which calls for “enhanced testing of chemicals, especially classes of chemicals combined together as a mixture, for effects on the mammary gland and breast …”

Environmental exposures, moreover, have gotten relatively little attention from researchers.

The National Institutes of Health spent almost $2.4 billion on 2,910 breast cancer research projects from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2010, the report says. But only about 27 percent of these projects had to do with prevention, and just 10 percent could be considered “environmental health research.”

Of the $2.8 billion appropriated by Congress from 1992 through 2012 for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, 75 percent went toward “basic biology and treatment research, with only 3 percent for prevention and cancer control projects,” the report says.

The committee recommends that researchers prioritize “chemicals that are produced in high volumes for which there is biologically plausible evidence of their role in the development of breast cancer.”

It also suggests that regulators improve oversight of “cosmetics and personal care products as well as household cleaning and food containment products,” and step up environmental monitoring, especially of “underserved and under-researched groups as well as ‘fenceline’ communities that are in close proximity to industry or waste sites.”

Spokespeople for the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.