Breast Cancer and One of the Most Pervasive Chemicals of Modern Life

I had breast cancer nine years ago. I have a strong constitution--and a strong will--and those carried me far during my diagnosis and treatment. But still it was a difficult time for me and my family. One thing that brought me comfort was this thought: better that I was sick than one of my three daughters. What parent wouldn’t want to protect their children from such a trial? 

The trouble is our job of protecting our children is getting harder, particularly shielding our daughters--and ourselves--from breast cancer. Why? Because one of the most pervasive chemicals in modern life has been linked to breast cancer. 

Known as bisphenol-A, or BPA, it is among the 50 most produced chemicals in the world. It is found in everything from plastic water jugs labeled #7 to baby bottles to canned food liners to take-out containers from your local deli. It is so omnipresent that the CDC has found that 95 percent of Americans have the chemical in their urine. 

What does this mean for women concerned about breast cancer? BPA is a synthetic form of estrogen, and estrogen feeds breast cancer. It ramps up cell division in pre-cancerous cells and it can prompt tumors to metastasize. 

In animal studies, BPA has been found to cause the early onset of puberty and stimulate mammary gland development in females. The estrogen-like properties in BPA are so strong that even when male rodents were exposed to it, they had an increased risk of mammary tumors. 

I do not carry the genetic mutations that scientists have linked to breast cancer, but still my daughters are at greater risk for the disease simply because I had it. I hate to think that every day they come into contact with a chemical that adds to their burden of risk. 

One of my environmental heroes, Rachel Carson, died of breast cancer, but before she did, she set us on the path to outlawing another estrogenic chemical, DDT. Surely we can do the same with BPA. 

NRDC’s Health Program is focusing hard on eliminating BPA from consumer products. Meantime, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones. 

  1. If you have a newborn, opt for the baby bottles now being manufactured without BPA. Click here for a list of BPA-free bottles, including some you can buy at Whole Foods.
  2. Don’t microwave food in plastic containers; use glass or ceramic. Many plates and cups made for babies and toddlers are made with plastics that contain BPA (they typically include a recycling triangle with #7). Be especially careful not to microwave these, since high heat has been shown to increase the leaching of BPA.
  3. Buy packaged soups and broth in cardboard “brick” cartons, which are made of safer materials.
  4. Opt for glass jars and bottles instead of cans when buying soda, preserved vegetables, or soup.
  5. Avoid plastic jugs labeled #7. That includes the popular Nalgene water bottles which we especially urge pregnant or breast-feeding mothers to steer clear of.