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Could toxins in textiles cause breast cancer?


Ask-the-Expert Online Conference

Question from Hbgin: My mother died of breast cancer. She worked at a chain of stores in which she cut cloth materials. Could there be some toxin in the materials that contributed to this?
Answers - Jennifer Griggs, M.D., M.P.H. It's such a common impulse to explain things that have happened to us. Much of the conversation now has been a desire to seek answers for something we can't really explain.
Devra Davis All the studies we talk about here, where we have evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer, necessarily look at groups of people over time, and yet cancer affects individuals one at a time. So we are really limited when it comes to understanding the causes of breast cancer in individual women. With respect to textiles, however, many modern textiles are treated with formaldehyde and dyes, and these things have been found to increase mammary tumors. There are some workplace studies as well that indicate that this could be a risk for breast cancer in groups of people with this kind of exposure.

People who work as dry cleaners who were in that industry 20 to 30 years ago were exposed to chemicals that may cause mammary tumors. Women who use dry cleaning may be at a higher risk for developing breast cancer as well. So now there is a move to “green” dry cleaning that uses organic solvents instead of chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents. This is a good development for two reasons: some of these chlorinated solvents contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and some of these contaminate groundwater and are associated with an increased risk of health problems.


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