Pesticides and breast cancer risk: a review of DDT, DDE, and dieldrin

Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Mar;109 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):35-47. doi: 10.1289/ehp.01109s135.


Established risk factors for breast cancer explain breast cancer risk only partially. Hence, there has been interest in evaluating what role environmental chemicals, especially those with evidence of being hormonally active agents, play in breast cancer risk. Organochlorine pesticides have received the most attention because of their persistence in the environment, ability to concentrate up the food chain, continued detection in the food supply and breast milk, and ability to be stored in the adipose tissue of animals and humans. Although several early descriptive studies and a cohort study identified a strong positive association with breast cancer risk and adipose or blood levels of the organochlorine pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and/or its metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), most of the more recent case--control and nested case--control studies have not supported this association. In this review I discuss these findings and explore how exposure to different forms of DDT with varying estrogenicities may have affected the results of these studies. I also address how other factors influence the interpretation of the studies on DDT, DDE, and breast cancer risk. These include the effect of analytic methods, dietary factors, menopausal status, use of different types of control populations, lactation history, estrogen receptor status, ethnic/racial subgroups, breast tumor characteristics, and polymorphisms. I also discuss the emerging research on whether serum levels of the persistent organochlorine insecticide dieldrin are related to breast cancer risk in Danish and American women. Further research needs are also identified.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • DDT / adverse effects*
  • DDT / pharmacokinetics
  • Dichlorodiphenyl Dichloroethylene / adverse effects*
  • Dichlorodiphenyl Dichloroethylene / pharmacokinetics
  • Dieldrin / adverse effects*
  • Dieldrin / pharmacokinetics
  • Diet
  • Endocrine System / drug effects
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Food Contamination
  • Humans
  • Insecticides / adverse effects*
  • Insecticides / pharmacokinetics
  • Lactation / physiology
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Receptors, Estrogen / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / physiology
  • Risk Factors


  • Insecticides
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Dichlorodiphenyl Dichloroethylene
  • DDT
  • Dieldrin