Chemicals in Food
Modern food-production methods have opened major avenues of exposure to environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds. Pesticides sprayed on crops, antibiotics used on poultry, and hormones injected into cattle, sheep and hogs expose consumers involuntarily to contaminants that become part of our bodies. Some of these exposures may increase breast cancer risk.
In some ways, our ancestors had it easy. Because they didn't have chemically treated food and chemically enhanced kitchenware, their diets and cooking practices exposed them to fewer toxic hazards.
Today, it's not just the food itself that you have to watch, but the containers they're stored in, which can leach toxic chemicals such as BPA, styrene and vinyl chloride. Not only do they sound unappetizing, they're actually bad for you.
Following are some of the harmful chemicals commonly found in our food and food containers, along with descriptions of what they are, where they're found and why they're bad. And check out our Tips for Prevention section to learn how to avoid them.
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Bisphenol A (BPA) can be found in reusable plastic food containers and the lining of food and beverage cans. Research shows that BPA exposure is linked to breast cancer, and has been shown to interfere with chemotherapy treatment for the disease.
Phthalates can be found in some plastic food containers and are considered endocrine disruptors. Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer. Some phthalates also act as weak estrogens in cell culture systems.
Some pesticides and herbicides used on the food we eat have been labeled as human or animal carcinogens and many are also found in water supplies and indoor air and dust. Pesticide exposure is of particular concern for agricultural workers. Studies have shown that some herbicides and pesticides stimulate growth of breast cancer cells or cause mammary cancer in rats.
Zearalenone is a naturally occurring chemical compound produced by a fungus that grows on grains such as corn. Studies have found higher levels of zearalenone in people who frequently consume popcorn. The synthetic version of zearalenone is zeranol, which is given to cattle to promote growth. Both compounds mimic estrogen, and in vitro studies show that they can stimulate the growth of breast cells.
The U.S. and Canadian beef, veal and lamb industries have used synthetic growth hormones since the 1950s to hasten the fattening of animals. Zeranol is one of the most widely used chemicals in the U.S. beef industry. It is of special concern since it mimics the hormone estradiol. Scientists recently exposed cancer cells to zeranol-treated beef and the results showed significant increases in cancer growth. Economic and health concerns have led the European Union to ban use of these hormones in their own meat-production systems and to ban imports of hormone-treated beef, including meat from the United States, since 1989 (Hanrahan, 2000).
Since its introduction in 1993, bovine growth hormone (rBGH/rBST) has proven controversial because of its potential carcinogenic effects. Several studies have shown an association between dairy consumption and breast cancer in pre-menopausal women. rBGH has also been shown to raise insulin-like growth factor levels in the body, associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
Styrene can leach from polystyrene – a component of Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and carryout containers – when heated, worn or put under pressure. Styrene is an animal mammary carcinogen and is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is used to produce food packaging. When PVC is made, vinyl chloride may be released into the air or wastewater. It was one of the first chemicals designated as known human carcinogen and has been linked to increased mortality from breast cancer and liver cancer among workers involved in its manufacture.
Phytoestrogens are estrogen compounds fround in many plants and plant products, including soy food products. Although scientific evidence suggests that plant-based estrogens offer nutritional benefits, the data is more conflicting when it comes to breast cancer risk. Some studies suggest phytoestrogen consumption during adolescence may help reduce later risk of breast cancer, but other studies suggest it may cause oxidative DNA damage and interfere with breast cancer drugs.
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As the evidence piles up about the devastating effects that prenatal chemical exposure can have on later-life health, we must consider what more can be done to protect pregnant women from toxic chemical exposures.
A new report looking at more than 60 peer-reviewed human and animal studies found the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, increases the risk for breast and prostate cancers, infertility problems, early puberty, damaged immune systems, neurological problems, metabolic changes that promote obesity, and ailments like type 2 diabetes.
When I was pregnant with my daughter three years ago, no one in my doctor's office mentioned anything about the potential risks associated with chemical exposures, nor did they mention anything about the steps I could take to avoid these exposures.