Background: The military presents a unique opportunity to study the incidence of disease in a population with complete knowledge of person-time and occupation. Women in the Army are employed more frequently in non-traditional, industrial jobs such as auto mechanic and motor transport operators than in the general US population, increasing the probability of exposure to industrial chemicals. A cohort to investigate the risk of breast cancer among active duty Army women occupationally exposed to volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) was constructed.
Methods: Age-adjusted incidence rates for breast cancer were calculated for more than 270,000 enlisted women who served between 1980-1996. Twenty-one VOCs, described in previously published literature as having a potential risk of breast cancer, were identified in an Army industrial hygiene survey database. Job title histories were linked to workplace chemical evaluations conducted by Army industrial hygienists, which included a subjective exposure potential rating (high, medium, low, and none) for each VOC. Poisson regression analysis was used to evaluate the association between the exposure rating by job title and breast cancer.
Results: The incidence of breast cancer in the cohort was significantly elevated in women younger than 35 years of age, especially among black women, when compared to the age-specific rates in the general population. Women who worked in occupations with a moderate to high exposure potential to at least one VOC had a 48% increased risk (P < 0.05) of breast cancer while on active duty between 1980-1996 when compared to those women with low to no exposure potential.
Conclusions: This study provides preliminary evidence that exposure to one or more of the study VOCs is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Further substance-specific, quantitative analyses are warranted.