Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program
Extended Environmental Exposures Annual Meeting
National breast cancer researchers, breast cancer advocates and over 35 high school students representing Great Neck and Huntington School Districts convened on November 18th for the inaugural conference of the Breast Cancer and Environment Research Program (BCERP) at the Roosevelt Hotel in NYC.
The conference was planned and organized by Laura Weinberg (GNBCC), Karen Miller of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition (HBCAC), and Kaya Balke of the University of California, San Francisco. The theme of the one-day public session was: “Precautionary Principle to Public Policy: Building Blocks”. Since science is rarely 100% certain, the Precautionary Principle addresses that you act in the presence of concerning, sound scientific weight of evidence, as recently exemplified by legislative action taken to ban the chemical plasticizer Bisphenol A (BPA) in children’s products. Researchers, policy makers and advocates who presented spoke of the Precautionary Principle and emphasized that mounting scientific evidence is enough fodder for lifestyle and public policy changes. Several students had an opportunity to participate in the question and answer period, and raised very interesting questions to the research panel.
The five-year national research initiative, Breast Cancer Environmental Research Project (BCERP), is studying the impact of pre-natal-to-adult environmental exposures that may predispose a woman to breast cancer. BCERP is a continuation of a prior seven- year project called Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Centers (BCERC) where four national centers studied the blood work and urine samples of six to eight year old girls correlated with chemical exposure and diet. The same girls now in the BCERP project are teenagers and will be studied further by eight national Principle Investigators. The project is being sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute. (NCI)
During the morning session, “Windows of Susceptibility” were discussed by researchers Lawrence Kushi, PhD, Sandra Haslam, PhD and Shuk-Mei Ho PhD. These sensitive time periods are the prenatal period, puberty and childhood adolescence when girls are most vulnerable to environmental toxins or fatty diets, which may place them at risk for getting breast cancer later in life. Also discussed by Dr. Ho, of the University of Cincinnati, was “epigenetics” which are changes in gene activity which can affect future generations. Dr. Ho emphasized that epigenetics is something we can take control of by reducing our exposure to environmental toxins, such as heavy metals, several solvents, and endocrine disrupting compounds such as Bisphenol A (BPA). Dr. Kushi elaborated that puberty is occurring as early as seven years old today. Data suggests that girls with relatively low-fat, high fiber diets tend to reach puberty later. Dr. Frank Biro of the University of Cincinnati and a BCERP Principle Investigator recently said that “Body weight is still the main driver in the puberty clock, but not the only one. There are lots of others who believe that chemicals are major cause. I clearly believe that they are contributing.” It is important to note that early puberty is also a breast cancer risk factor due to an increased lifetime exposure to the hormone estrogen. Researchers of the BCERP program are studying the hormonal effects of the endocrine disrupting chemicals bisphenol A (BPA), found in certain plastics; parabens, found in cosmetics; and phthalates found in cosmetics and certain plastics.
During the second session of the conference, Dr. Gayle Windham discussed the impact of exposure to brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) in girls during windows of susceptibility. PBDES can be found in the upholstery of furniture manufactured before 2005 and in certain electronics. Janice Barlow, Executive Director of Zero Breast Cancer, discussed the important role of advocacy and community outreach. A special guest appearance during this session was made by Patti Lubin who is Senior Advisor on Public Policy for U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Ms. Lubin stated that Senator Gillibrand supports the BCERP research initiative to find the connection between breast cancer and the environment.
The BCERP program ended with an important discussion by Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator of Region 2, about the wide range of chemicals that we are exposed to in our environment. Currently, 41% of people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with some type of cancer. She explained that 84,000 chemicals are in our environment, while only 200 of them have been tested for their toxicity, and only five have been banned since the EPA was created in the 1970s. Ms. Enck emphasized that that the Toxic Substance Control Act is outdated and there needs to be chemical policy reform to protect public health and our environment. (Currently a federal bill which addresses chemical policy reform called the Safe Chemicals Act.)
As part of the BCERP research initiative, NIEHS awarded a five-year grant to Laura Weinberg (GNBCC) and Karen Miller (HBCAC) to work as Community Partners with Principle Investigators Susan Teitelbaum and Jia Chen at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Drs. Teitelbaum and Chen will be researching Breast Cancer Genomics in Windows of Susceptibility to Endocrine Disruptors. The endocrine disrupting chemicals being studied are triclosan, found in anti-bacterial soaps and cosmetics, parabens, in cosmetics and phthalates, in cosmetics and certain plastics. The findings of this five-year study may provide us with a better understanding of breast cancer etiology and public health recommendations for changes in lifestyle that can be easily and widely implemented. As Community Partners, Ms. Weinberg and Ms. Miller will establish an outreach and translation program for the Mount Sinai research project. They will also represent the community perspective in the interpretation of study results.
For more information: a new, updated Breast Cancer Environmental Research Project site will be available shortly at www.bcerp.org; BCERC: www.bcerc.org; Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition: www.greatneckbcc.org; Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition: www.hbcac.org.