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Exposure to Certain Chemicals at Young Age Linked to Increase in Risk

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A study found that exposure to certain chemicals before age 36 appears to increase the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer after menopause.

Health effects caused by compounds that may be in your home, workplace, or other environment usually happen when you're exposed to them over a long period of time -- 10, 20, or more years. Figuring out if a compound may increase the risk of a certain cancer often starts by looking at when and how long people diagnosed with a particular cancer were exposed to the compound and comparing that exposure history to the exposure history of people not diagnosed with the cancer.

This study looked at how much 556 women diagnosed with breast cancer and 613 women diagnosed with other cancers (not breast cancer) were exposed to a number of compounds. All the women were postmenopausal when diagnosed (aged 50 to 75). By comparing the exposure histories of women diagnosed with breast cancer to women diagnosed with other cancers, the researchers hoped to identify compounds specifically linked to breast cancer.

Overall, the researchers found a link between longer exposure to several workplace compounds and a higher risk of breast cancer, especially if exposure started before age 36.

For every decade (10 years) a woman was exposed to acrylic fibers -- which might happen in a textile mill -- her likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer after menopause was 8 times greater than that of women who weren't exposed to acrylic fibers:

  • each 10 years of exposure to nylon fibers doubled the risk of breast cancer after menopause
  • long exposure to rayon fibers (synthetic) and wool fibers (natural) increased breast cancer risk

The apparent increased breast cancer risk could be due to exposure to the fibers or could be related to the chemicals used to dye the fibers or make them fire-resistant.

Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as a young adult also seemed to increase breast cancer risk. PAHs are petroleum-based chemicals found in asphalt, vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, cigarette smoke, and smoke from burning trash. PAHs also can be found in grilled or charred meats.

Each day, we're all exposed to a number of compounds -- at work, at home, outside -- that may potentially increase the risk of health problems. Some of these compounds aren't recognized as hazards yet. None of us can live inside a plastic bubble, but it may make sense to try and avoid compounds known to cause cancer if you can in your home and work environment.

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is part of the federal Department of Labor. OSHA is responsible for making sure that all workplaces are as safe as possible. If you have concerns about possible exposure to harmful compounds or other health threats in your workplace, talk to your employer about your concerns. You also can learn how OSHA can help you on the OSHA website.
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