Environmental pollutants and breast cancer

Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Jun;111(8):1007-19. doi: 10.1289/ehp.6310.


Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the leading cause of cancer death among women 35-54 years of age. Rising incidence, increased risk among migrants to higher risk regions, and poor prediction of individual risk have prompted a search for additional modifiable factors. Risk factors for breast cancer include reproductive characteristics associated with estrogen and other hormones, pharmaceutical hormones, and activities such as alcohol use and lack of exercise that affect hormone levels. As a result, investigation of hormonally active compounds in commercial products and pollution is a priority. Compounds that cause mammary tumors in animals are additional priorities. Animal models provide insight into possible mechanisms for effects of environmental pollutants on breast cancer and identify chemical exposures to target in epidemiologic studies. Although few epidemiologic studies have been conducted for chemical exposures, occupational studies show associations between breast cancer and exposure to certain organic solvents and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Population-based studies have been limited to a few organochlorine compounds and PAHs and have been mostly negative. A variety of challenges in studies of breast cancer and the environment may have contributed to negative findings. Lack of exposure assessment tools and few hypothesis-generating toxicologic studies limit the scope of epidemiologic studies. Issues of timing with respect to latency and periods of breast vulnerability, and individual differences in susceptibility pose other challenges. Substantial work is needed in exposure assessment, toxicology, and susceptibility before we can expect a pay-off from large epidemiologic studies of breast cancer and environment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Endocrine System / drug effects
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Pollutants / poisoning*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Estrogens / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Style
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / poisoning*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Solvents / poisoning*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Estrogens
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Solvents