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Environmental oestrogens and breast cancer: long-term low-dose effects of mixtures of various chemical combinations
  1. Philippa D Darbre1,
  2. Mariana F Fernandez2,3
  1. 1Biomedical Sciences Section, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, UK
  2. 2Laboratory of Medical Investigations, University of Granada and San Cecilio University Hospital, Granada, Spain
  3. 3Centro de Investigación Biomédica en Red de Epidemiología y Salud Pública (CIBERESP), Spain
  1. Correspondence to Dr Philippa D Darbre, Biomedical Sciences Section, School of Biological Sciences, Hopkins Building, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6UB, UK; p.d.darbre{at}

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The incidence of breast cancer has risen worldwide to unprecedented levels in recent decades, making it now the major cancer of women in many parts of the world.1 Although diet, alcohol, radiation and inherited loss of BRCA1/2 genes have all been associated with increased incidence, the main identified risk factors are life exposure to hormones including physiological variations associated with puberty/pregnancy/menopause,1 personal choice of use of hormonal contraceptives2 and/or hormone replacement therapy.3–6 On this basis, exposure of the human breast to the many environmental pollutant chemicals capable of mimicking or interfering with oestrogen action7 should also be of concern.8 Hundreds of such environmental chemicals have now been measured in human breast tissue from a range of dietary and domestic exposure sources7 ,9 including persistent organochlorine pollutants (POPs),10 polybrominated diphenylethers and polybromobiphenyls,11 polychlorinated biphenyls,12 dioxins,13 alkyl phenols,14 bisphenol-A and chlorinated derivatives,15 as well as other less lipophilic compounds such as parabens (alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid),16 but studies investigating any association between raised levels of such compounds and the development of breast cancer remain inconclusive.7–16 However, the functionality of these chemicals has continued to be assessed on the basis of individual chemicals rather than the environmental reality of long-term low-dose exposure to complex mixtures. This misses the potential for individuals to have high concentrations of different compounds but with a common mechanism of action. It also misses the complex interactions between chemicals and physiological hormones which together may act to alter the internal homeostasis of the oestrogenic environment of mammary tissue.

Two recent papers17 ,18 have reported studies which shed light on this issue. The first paper17 presents evidence of exactly such a scenario in which 19 individual …

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  • Contributors The two authors jointly wrote the article and approved the final submitted version.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.