PUBLISHED ON: 26 January 2015

An article published in the Telegraph last Friday suggested that breast cancer could be caused by chemicals contained in plastic. It was also alluded that they may have a role to play in the cause of breast cancer amongst younger women. Breakthrough Breast Cancer disagrees with the speculation in this article and in this blog, Yinka Ebo, Breakthrough’s Health Information Lead, presents a more evidence-based view.

Breast cancer in young women

It’s well known that cancer is mainly a disease of old age.  This is because the changes that make a healthy cell become a cancer cell usually takes a long time to develop. So even though cases in young people are uncommon – less than one per cent of all cancers in the UK occur in children (aged 0-14) and less than one per cent in teenagers and young adults (aged 15-24) – it begs the question: what causes cancer in young people? And, more specifically, what causes breast cancer in younger women?

Breast cancer is rare in younger women (under the age of 40), making up around 5% of the total number of cases. Younger women are more likely to have breast cancer as a result of a faulty BRCA gene and their cancers are often more aggressive. Diagnosis can also be an issue for younger women as the signs and symptoms can go ignored if that person believes they are too young to get breast cancer. We don’t know of any specific causes of breast cancer in younger women but, as with all cases, a complex mixture of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors are at play.

Through scientific research, we’ve discovered that our risk depends on a combination of our genes, our environment and our lifestyles. This makes it very difficult to identify one sole cause of breast cancer on an individual person as many different factors all contribute to risk. The media recently tried to tell us that ‘bad luck’ is the cause of many cases of cancer but it’s unlikely to be playing the only role, considering experts estimate that more than four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes.

Chemicals and breast cancer

The Telegraph article quotes the charity Breast Cancer UK, who suggest that chemicals in plastics and food wrap, in particular BPA (bisphenol A), can cause breast cancer.  BPA is a synthetic compound widely used in manufacturing plastics and has long been a target by campaigners as an alleged cause of cancer.

There is no convincing scientific evidence to back up claims that pesticides or chemicals found in plastics cause cancer in people. WHO (World Health Organisation) reviewed the carcinogenicity of bisphenol A in 2010 and concluded that there is no evidence to support the BPA as a carcinogen. Similar sentiments can be heard from the European Food Safety Authority, who recently showed that that there is “no consumer health risk from BPA exposure”.

Collecting the evidence

Researchers are working hard to study the environmental risk factors for cancer alongside the impact of our genes and lifestyles. The Breakthrough Generations Study is leading the way in this area for breast cancer research and, in time, hopes to make the discoveries which will reveal the root causes of the disease. It has already made some significant findings since it began in 2004.

We agree with the last sentence of the Telegraph article that “…we need to pay attention to what may be propagating cancer in younger people”.  But we strongly believe we need to do this with well-funded research and not by dragging up old clichés which have been disproven time and time again.

Yinka Ebo is Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s Health Information Lead