Environmental chemicals and breast cancer: An updated review of epidemiological literature informed by biological mechanisms

Environ Res. 2018 Jan;160:152-182. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2017.08.045. Epub 2017 Oct 6.


Background: Many common environmental chemicals are mammary gland carcinogens in animal studies, activate relevant hormonal pathways, or enhance mammary gland susceptibility to carcinogenesis. Breast cancer's long latency and multifactorial etiology make evaluation of these chemicals in humans challenging.

Objective: For chemicals previously identified as mammary gland toxicants, we evaluated epidemiologic studies published since our 2007 review. We assessed whether study designs captured relevant exposures and disease features suggested by toxicological and biological evidence of genotoxicity, endocrine disruption, tumor promotion, or disruption of mammary gland development.

Methods: We systematically searched the PubMed database for articles with breast cancer outcomes published in 2006-2016 using terms for 134 environmental chemicals, sources, or biomarkers of exposure. We critically reviewed the articles.

Results: We identified 158 articles. Consistent with experimental evidence, a few key studies suggested higher risk for exposures during breast development to dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), dioxins, perfluorooctane-sulfonamide (PFOSA), and air pollution (risk estimates ranged from 2.14 to 5.0), and for occupational exposure to solvents and other mammary carcinogens, such as gasoline components (risk estimates ranged from 1.42 to 3.31). Notably, one 50-year cohort study captured exposure to DDT during several critical windows for breast development (in utero, adolescence, pregnancy) and when this chemical was still in use. Most other studies did not assess exposure during a biologically relevant window or specify the timing of exposure. Few studies considered genetic variation, but the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project reported higher breast cancer risk for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in women with certain genetic variations, especially in DNA repair genes.

Conclusions: New studies that targeted toxicologically relevant chemicals and captured biological hypotheses about genetic variants or windows of breast susceptibility added to evidence of links between environmental chemicals and breast cancer. However, many biologically relevant chemicals, including current-use consumer product chemicals, have not been adequately studied in humans. Studies are challenged to reconstruct exposures that occurred decades before diagnosis or access biological samples stored that long. Other problems include measuring rapidly metabolized chemicals and evaluating exposure to mixtures.

Keywords: Breast development; Endocrine disruptors; Mammary carcinogens; Prevention; Toxicology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Humans


  • Environmental Pollutants