Rethinking breast cancer risk and the environment: the case for the precautionary principle

Environ Health Perspect. 1998 Sep;106(9):523-9. doi: 10.1289/ehp.98106523.


The World Health Organization recently reported that breast cancer has become the most common cancer in women throughout the world. Known risk factors account for less than half of all cases of breast cancer, and inherited germ line mutations occur in at most only 10% of all cases. Cumulative exposure to estradiol and other hormones links many of the established risk factors for breast cancer. This paper reviews epidemiologic and toxicologic evidence on breast cancer risks and presents a comprehensive construct of risk factors intended to focus on the identification of those factors that can be controlled or modified. We attempt to provide a framework for interpreting the etiologic interplay of endogenous metabolic changes and environmental changes in the etiology of breast cancer. The construct we develop distinguishes between those risk factors that are directly causal, such as ionizing radiation and inherited germ cell defects, those vulnerability factors that extend the time period during which the breast undergoes development, and those contributing factors that increase total hormonal stimulation of the breast. Some hormonally active compounds, such as those in soy and broccoli and other phytoestrogen-containing foods, can be protective against breast cancer, while others, such as some environmental contaminants, appear to increase the risk of the disease by increasing levels of harmful hormones. Efforts to explain patterns of breast cancer should distinguish between these different risk factors. Identification of vulnerability and contributing risk factors can foster the development of public policy to reduce the burden of this prevalent cancer. Prudent precautionary principles suggest that reducing exposure to avoidable or modifiable risk factors should receive high priority from the public and private sectors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Developed Countries
  • Developing Countries
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Illness / epidemiology
  • Environmental Illness / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Risk
  • Risk Factors