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Do cleaning products cause breast cancer?

July 20, 2010
Courtesy of BioMed Central Limited
and World Science staff

Wom­en who re­port great­er use of clean­ing prod­ucts may be at high­er breast can­cer risk than those who say they use them spar­ing­ly, a small study sug­gests.

Sci­en­tists writ­ing in the re­search jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Health asked more than 1500 wom­en about their clean­ing prod­uct us­age, and found a high­er breast can­cer rate among wom­en who re­ported us­ing more air fresh­en­ers and prod­ucts for mold and mil­dew con­trol.

Wom­en who re­port great­er use of clean­ing prod­ucts may be at high­er breast can­cer risk than those who say they use them spar­ing­ly, a small study sug­gests. (Im­age cour­te­sy U.S. EPA)


The re­search­ers at the Si­lent Spring In­sti­tute in New­ton, Mass., and the Bos­ton Uni­vers­ity School of Pub­lic Health con­ducted phone in­ter­views with 787 fe­male breast can­cer pa­tients and 721 com­par­i­son wom­en.

“Wom­en who re­ported the high­est com­bined clean­ing prod­uct use had a dou­bled risk of breast can­cer com­pared to those with the low­est re­ported use,” said re­searcher Jul­ia Brody of the in­sti­tute. 

“Use of air fresh­en­ers and prod­ucts for mold and mil­dew con­trol were as­so­ci­at­ed with in­creased risk. To our knowl­edge, this is the first pub­lished re­port on clean­ing prod­uct use and risk of breast can­cer.” 

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors ques­tioned wom­en on prod­uct use, be­liefs about breast can­cer causes, and es­tab­lished and sus­pected risk fac­tors. They found that clean­ing prod­ucts, air fresh­en­ers, and in­sect re­pel­lents were as­so­ci­at­ed with breast can­cer, but lit­tle as­socia­t­ion was ob­served with over­all pes­ti­cide use. 

Brody warned, though, that there are po­ten­tial bi­as­ing fac­tors in the study that could make the find­ings un­cer­tain, high­light­ing a need for fur­ther re­search.

“When wom­en are di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer, they of­ten think about what hap­pened in the past that might have con­tri­but­ed to the dis­ease,” she not­ed. “As a re­sult, it may be that wom­en with breast can­cer more ac­cu­rately re­call their past prod­uct use or even over-estimate it.”

The sci­en­tists found that wom­en with breast can­cer who be­lieved that chem­i­cals and pol­lu­tants con­trib­ute “a lot” to the risk of de­vel­op­ing the con­di­tion were more likely to re­port high prod­uct us­age.

Ex­pe­ri­ence with breast can­cer may al­so in­flu­ence be­liefs about its causes, Brody added. “For ex­am­ple, wom­en di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer are less likely to be­lieve hered­ity con­trib­utes ‘a lot,’ be­cause most are the first in their family to get the dis­ease.”


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Women who report greater use of cleaning products may be at higher breast cancer risk than those who say they use them sparingly, a small study suggests. Scientists writing in the research journal Environmental Health asked more than 1500 women about their cleaning product usage, and found a higher breast cancer rate among women who reported using more air fresheners and products for mold and mildew control. The researchers at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass., and the Boston University School of Public Health conducted phone interviews with 787 female breast cancer patients and 721 comparison women. “Women who reported the highest combined cleaning product use had a doubled risk of breast cancer compared to those with the lowest reported use,” said researcher Julia Brody of the institute. “Use of air fresheners and products for mold and mildew control were associated with increased risk. To our knowledge, this is the first published report on cleaning product use and risk of breast cancer.” The investigators questioned women on product use, beliefs about breast cancer causes, and established and suspected risk factors. They found that cleaning products, air fresheners, and insect repellents were associated with breast cancer, but little association was observed with overall pesticide use. Brody warned, though, that there are potential biasing factors in the study that could make the findings uncertain, highlighting a need for further research. “When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they often think about what happened in the past that might have contributed to the disease,” she noted. “As a result, it may be that women with breast cancer more accurately recall their past product use or even over-estimate it. The scientists found that women with breast cancer who believed that chemicals and pollutants contribute “a lot” to the risk of developing the condition were more likely to report high product usage. Experience with breast cancer may also influence beliefs about its causes, Brody added. “For example, women diagnosed with breast cancer are less likely to believe heredity contributes ‘a lot,’ because most are the first in their family to get the disease.”