Hundreds of chemicals in everyday consumer products may increase breast cancer risk

More than 900 chemicals found in cosmetics, drinking water, food and cleaning supplies used by millions of Americans every day may cause biological changes linked to risk of developing breast cancer, according to a new study published this month.

Hundreds of these chemicals are legally allowed for use in making these products in the U.S. but that approval doesn’t mean they’re safe for people exposed to them.

The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, identified 921 commonly used chemicals that are linked to breast cancer risk. The paper identified chemicals that have been either linked to mammary gland tumors or increase certain hormonal activities that may result in forming tumors, or both. 

How chemicals cause cancer

Chemicals can cause cancer in many ways, but the typical outcome tracked in studies is the formation of tumors.

The new study expands what we know about chemicals and their potential cancer risk, because the researchers from the Silent Spring Institute and University of California, Berkeley, looked not only at chemicals that cause tumors but also those that create biological changes. This expanded the list of chemicals reviewed in the study from 279 to 921.

Environmental exposures, such as to chemicals in cosmetics and other products used everyday and covered by the study, are linked to breast cancer.

Many of the 921 chemicals are also endocrine disruptors, which can harm reproduction and development of the nervous system. The study also found 92 percent of the chemicals can harm or change our DNA. 

EWG looks at all possible toxicological data like this for our scientific approach to reviewing chemical ingredients, including their cancer risk, in our Skin Deep® guide to safer personal care products. We score products based on their chemical ingredients’ potential for human or environmental harm, using the findings in the new study as well as other available toxicological data and peer-reviewed scientific studies.

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Legal doesn’t always mean safe

Just because a chemical is approved for use in a product doesn’t mean it won’t harm you. Almost none of the 921 chemicals were tested for safety before they were used on the market.

The chemicals include phthalates, solvents like trichloroethylene and bisphenols, including BPA.

They also include chlorotriazine herbicides, like atrazine, which are pesticides and drinking water contaminants. The Environmental Protection Agency dismissed some of these herbicides as not harmful to humans, despite studies showing they caused mammary gland tumors in rats.

The chemicals named in the study are used in almost all everyday products. They’re found in cosmetics and labeled as “fragrance,” cleaning products, clothing, and even children’s toys. 

Our regulatory system is broken. When chemicals are proven to harm people, they may be phased out of use, but they’re often replaced with substances equally as harmful. When the government doesn’t test these chemicals before allowing them to be used in products, it’s failing to sufficiently protect human health.

These chemicals may be combined in products yet they are rarely assessed for safety as chemical mixtures. As mixtures, chemicals can interact with each other in the body, potentially making them more toxic. Chemicals should be assessed for safety as mixtures and evaluated across all the products that might contain them, using a cumulative risk assessments framework.

Reducing your exposure

Eliminating your exposure to the 921 chemicals in the study might not be possible, since they’re used in so many products. But you can reduce your exposure, and potentially lower your risk of suffering the harms linked to these chemicals: 

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