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One glass of alcohol a day increases breast cancer risk, report shows, but role of chemicals is overlooked

WineDrinking one glass of wine or other alcoholic drink a day increases breast cancer risk, according to a report by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund.

The report also showed, for the first time, that vigorous exercise such as running or fast bicycling decreases the risk of both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancers. The evidence confirmed an earlier finding that moderate exercise decreases the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer, the most common type of breast cancer.

In addition, the report showed that:

  • Being overweight or obese increases the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer.
  • Mothers who breastfeed are at lower risk for breast cancer.
  • Greater adult weight gain increases risk of post-menopausal breast cancer.

However, the report, which analyzed 119 studies, including data on 12 million women and 260,000 cases of breast cancer, overlooks the link between exposure to chemicals and breast cancer.

It gives the impression, wrongly, that women are totally responsible themselves for getting breast cancer through their lifestyle choices.

Two organizations, Silent Spring Institute and the Breast Cancer Fund, work to prevent breast cancer by eliminating exposure to toxic chemicals linked to the disease.

Breast cancer incidence in the United States has risen since World War II, when industry began pumping out pesticides, plastics, solvents, and other chemicals, leaving residues in the air, water, and soil, according to the institute. Laboratory studies suggest that many of these chemicals may cause breast tumors, hasten their growth, or leave mammary glands more vulnerable to carcinogens.

Researchers at the institute identified 216 chemicals that cause mammary tumors in animals. They used that information to create an online database featuring information on the carcinogens. The Mammary Carcinogens Review Database offers summaries of the carcinogenic potential of each chemical, data on mutagenicity, opportunities for exposure in the general population and for women at work, and other characteristics of chemical use, sources, and regulation. The database includes references to 900 studies.

While huge changes are needed in public policy to get these and other toxic chemicals out of consumer food and products, there are actions that consumers can take to reduce their chances of getting breast cancer. Here are the Breast Cancer Fund’s recommendations:

Read ingredient labels

It’s legal to use ingredients linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive harm in personal care products, cosmetics, cleaning products, and food packaging. Check the fund’s Glossary of Exposures to learn more.

If you don’t know what’s in it, don’t use it

Labeling loopholes have allowed companies to avoid disclosing ingredients on the labels of household cleaners, food packaging, and hair and nail salon products. Buy from companies committed to full ingredient disclosure.

Avoid fragrance in everything

Fragrance or parfum is a cocktail of ingredients, and each fragrance can include dozens of potentially harmful chemicals. Avoid purchasing and using personal care products, cleaning products, clothing, and home goods with added fragrance as often as possible.

Wash your hands

Washing your hands kills germs and reduces exposures to unsafe chemicals. Many chemicals from everyday products end up in household or workplace dust. Hand-washing reduces dust on the hands, and as a result reduces exposures to chemicals, such as flame retardants. Make sure to use hand soap free of harmful chemicals.

Go fresh, organic, and hormone-free

Choose fresh, organic, and hormone-free foods to avoid exposure to pesticides, added hormones, and other possible toxic chemicals in packaged foods. Buying products grown organically reduces pesticide use, which is good for families, farm workers, and the environment, and eating fresh or frozen foods helps you to avoid chemicals like BPA in food can linings.

Don’t be brainwashed, greenwashed, or pinkwashed

Companies use savvy marketing to sell products, so don’t let false claims trick you into buying products with harmful ingredients. Watch out for products designed to look like they’re good for the environment or natural. This is called green washing — words like “natural” and “safe” have little, if any, meaning without ingredient labels to back them up. Be wary of products boasting a pink ribbon, too; many pinkwashed products contain chemicals linked to cancer, and often do little to prevent or reduce breast cancer.

The Silent Spring Institute offers these additional recommendations:

  • Leave your shoes at the door to avoid tracking pesticides and other chemicals inside.
  • Use less toxic methods to control pests at home such as sealing cracks and storing food tightly.
  • Use glass, stainless steel, cast iron, and ceramic instead of plastic or nonstick cookware in the kitchen.
  • Choose natural fibers for furnishings and clothing to avoid flame retardants.
  • Keep dust levels low and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  • Make your own cleaning supplies with baking soda, vinegar, and olive oil.
  • Read labels to avoid “fragrance,” “phthalates,” “antimicrobial,” and “parabens” in personal care and household products.
  • Join with your neighbors and friends to take action in your community and the nation.

The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund’s widely publicized report is important. It found strong evidence that drinking the equivalent of a small glass of wine or beer a day – about 10 grams alcohol content – increases pre-menopausal breast cancer risk by 5 percent and post-menopausal breast cancer risk by 9 percent. A standard drink is 14 grams of alcohol.

For vigorous exercise, pre-menopausal women who were the most active had a 17 percent lower risk and post-menopausal women had a 10 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer compared to those who were the least active. Total moderate activity, such as walking and gardening, linked to a 13 percent lower risk when comparing the most versus least active women.

The AICR estimates that one in three breast cancer cases in the United States could be prevented if women didn’t drink alcohol, were physically active, and stayed a healthy weight.

But lifestyle changes aren’t the only factors that cause breast cancer. The role of chemicals needs to be widely explored and publicized. In addition, the federal government needs to take long overdue action to remove carcinogens from food and consumer products.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in U.S. women with more than 252,000 new cases estimated this year.

Copyright 2017, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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