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Breast Cancer Fund President Responds to New Report on Breast Cancer and the Environment

Today the Institute of Medicine released its report, funded by Komen for the Cure, Breast Cancer and the Environment: A Life Course Approach

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 7, 2011 
CONTACT: Shannon Coughlin, Breast Cancer Fund, 415-336-2246, scoughlin@breastcancerfund.org

The following is a statement from Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund.

“The Breast Cancer Fund has reviewed the Institute of Medicine’s new report Breast Cancer and the Environment, and our takeaway is that while it offers a useful review of some of the existing data on the disease’s links to environmental factors, it relies on an antiquated model of weighing the evidence and, therefore, does not go far enough to protect public health.

“The IOM report brings attention to the increased risk for breast cancer associated with unnecessary medical radiation and estrogen-progestin menopausal hormone therapy, two risk factors covered extensively in the Breast Cancer Fund’s biennial report State of the Evidence and that have been well-understood for years. While it’s useful to remind the public of these risk factors, it is not new information.

“The report mentions certain chemical exposures as potential risk factors and calls for more research in this area, but it stops short of recognizing that in the meantime a precautionary approach to chemical exposure is not only critical but essential to sound public health. The authors acknowledged that it is unethical to conduct human experiments that expose women to potentially harmful substances. They also point out that it is essential to consider exposures during critical windows of development, as well as the complex mix of environmental agents that women are exposed to over the course of their lives, but that it is extremely difficult to get solid epidemiological data on such long-term and mixed exposures. They also acknowledge that ‘experimental studies in animals and in in vitro systems are essential components of research on breast cancer’ and that ‘they can provide indications that a chemical or other agent may cause harm.’ Last, they point out that most chemicals have never been studied in ways that could indicate whether they might be relevant to breast cancer.

“Yet, despite outlining the many reasons why we will not have conclusive epidemiological data on chemicals’ links to breast cancer for the foreseeable future, the report authors chose to largely discount the extensive body of animal research showing connections between chemical exposure and breast cancer in drawing the conclusion that we should wait for more evidence of harm before acting to protect public health.

“We think it’s unacceptable to not inform the public about the potential harm of human chemical exposure in cases where lab studies show substantial evidence of harm. For example, the report finds that the chemical BPA is a ‘biologically plausible hazard,’ but says that the evidence does not necessarily warrant individual action to avoid the chemical. Yet if BPA were a potential pharmaceutical drug, it is highly doubtful that, given the adverse effects already seen in animal models, it would ever be allowed into clinical trials in humans. Indeed, we are all currently part of an uncontrolled human experiment on the effects of BPA exposure.

“The failure to take a precautionary approach may leave the public confused and even misinformed, as is evidenced by some of the initial media headlines about the report that say that chemicals are unproven to raise breast cancer risk, when the report itself indicated there are plausible reasons for concern.

“The IOM’s contribution certainly is not the definitive word on the subject. We will add this to last year’s incisive report from the President’s Cancer Panel, which found that ‘the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,’ and said that ‘efforts to inform the public of such harmful exposures and how to prevent them must be increased.’ Further insight will come from the National Institute of Health Interagency Breast Cancer and Environment Research Coordinating Committee, of which I am a member. This federal inter-agency body is conducting its own review of the science related to breast cancer and the environment. This committee’s charter includes a broad mandate to go beyond the IOM report and make recommendations on how to fill the gaps in knowledge about the environmental causes of breast cancer, and to foster collaboration across federal agencies in funding, conducting and translating related research. We are hopeful that this effort will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the science on breast cancer and the environment, as well as of what is needed to accelerate this understanding and translate it into public health policies that reduce breast cancer risk.

“As science-based environmental health advocates, we believe that when a research body like the IOM examines what we already know, it can bring greater visibility to our efforts to reduce breast cancer risk. As an organization that has been reviewing, compiling and translating the science related to breast cancer and the environment for over a decade, we believe that the IOM’s report validates the important work of identifying and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer.”

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The Breast Cancer Fund is the leading national organization working to identify and eliminate the environmental causes of breast cancer. www.breastcancerfund.org