Exposure to estrogens is a risk factor for breast and other human cancers. Initiation of breast, prostate and other cancers has been hypothesized to result from reaction of specific estrogen metabolites, catechol estrogen-3,4-quinones, with DNA to form depurinating adducts at the N-7 of guanine and N-3 of adenine by 1,4-Michael addition. The catechol of the carcinogenic synthetic estrogen hexestrol, a hydrogenated derivative of diethylstilbestrol, is metabolized to its quinone, which reacts with DNA to form depurinating adducts at the N-7 of guanine and N-3 of adenine. The catecholamine dopamine and the metabolite catechol (1,2-dihydroxybenzene) of the leukemogen benzene can also be oxidized to their quinones, which react with DNA to form predominantly analogous depurinating adducts. Apurinic sites formed by depurinating adducts are converted into tumor-initiating mutations by error-prone repair. These mutations could initiate cancer by estrogens and benzene, and Parkinson's disease by the neurotransmitter dopamine. These data suggest a unifying molecular mechanism of initiation for many cancers and neurodegenerative diseases and lay the groundwork for designing strategies to assess risk and prevent these diseases.