Phthalate Exposure and Breast Cancer Incidence: A Danish Nationwide Cohort Study

J Clin Oncol. 2019 Jul 20;37(21):1800-1809. doi: 10.1200/JCO.18.02202. Epub 2019 Apr 17.


Purpose: Phthalate exposure is ubiquitous and especially high among users of drug products formulated with phthalates. Some phthalates mimic estradiol and may promote breast cancer. Existing epidemiologic studies on this topic are small, mostly not prospective, and have given inconsistent results. We estimated associations between longitudinal phthalate exposures and breast cancer risk in a Danish nationwide cohort, using redeemed prescriptions for phthalate-containing drug products to measure exposure.

Methods: We ascertained the phthalate content of drugs marketed in Denmark using an internal Danish Medicines Agency ingredient database. We enrolled a Danish nationwide cohort of 1.12 million women at risk for a first cancer diagnosis on January 1, 2005. By combining drug ingredient data with the Danish National Prescription registry, we characterized annual, cumulative phthalate exposure through redeemed prescriptions. We then fit multivariable Cox regression models to estimate associations between phthalate exposures and incident invasive breast carcinoma according to tumor estrogen receptor status.

Results: Over 9.99 million woman-years of follow-up, most phthalate exposures were not associated with breast cancer incidence. High-level dibutyl phthalate exposure (≥ 10,000 cumulative mg) was associated with an approximately two-fold increase in the rate of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer (hazard ratio, 1.9; 95% CI, 1.1 to 3.5), consistent with in vitro evidence for an estrogenic effect of this compound. Lower levels of dibutyl phthalate exposure were not associated with breast cancer incidence.

Conclusion: Our results suggest that women should avoid high-level exposure to dibutyl phthalate, such as through long-term treatment with pharmaceuticals formulated with dibutyl phthalate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Cohort Studies
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Phthalic Acids / adverse effects*


  • Phthalic Acids
  • phthalic acid