kristofI love when men stand up for women. Emma Watson launched the UN’s global HeForShe campaign calling men to speak out against sexist attitudes.

Men Stopping Violence began with a mission to mobilize men to prevent violence against women and girls. Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof with his wife Sheryl WuDunn has catapulted the profile of social injustice and the oppression of women globally.

That’s why on October 20, 2014, I’ll be listening to Kristof stand up for women again—this time for breast cancer prevention and the role of environmental chemical exposures at the Silent Spring Institute‘s 20th Anniversary celebration in Cambridge, MA.

“What if breast cancer in the United States has less to do with insurance or mammograms and more to do with contaminants in our water or air — or in certain plastic containers in our kitchens?“ reflected Kristof in 2009 (New York Times, December 5, 2009).

“What if the surge in asthma and childhood leukemia reflect, in part, the poisons we impose upon ourselves?”

Since then, evidence increasingly links breast cancer risk to certain chemicals we encounter in everyday products. Compounds readily found in products such as plastics, flame retardants, cleaning agents, and cosmetics can affect growth, development, and disrupt the body’s healthy hormone balance.

These endocrine–disrupting compounds (EDC’s) include phthalates, DES (diethylstilbestrol), bisphenol-A in plastics, herbicides, pesticides, and other synthetic chemicals used in manufacturing.

As secondary pollutants, they can affect soil, air, water, and wildlife and circulating levels can be identified in human bodies.

The World Health Organization regards endocrine disruptors as a priority issue based on their association with altered reproductive function in males and females, increased incidence of breast cancer, neuro-developmental delays in children, as well as susceptibility to infection.

While the relative risk of exposure to these compounds is low, the potential impact on breast cancer risk reduction is enormous given their widespread use and frequent public exposure to EDC’s (Engel and Wolff, Annu Rev Public Health, 2014).

“Low dose” exposures have now been shown to be important though previously assumed to be safe. In contrast, the leaps in understanding of genetics and breast cancer have identified a high relative risk in some women with genetic mutations albeit impacting prevention of only a small percentage of breast cancers.

What is not clear with environmental risk is how much exposure is harmful, and there is dire need for better research methods and funding of research on the health consequences of environmental exposures. “This lack of data should not paralyze us, though,” says Julia Brody, Executive Director of the Silent Spring Institute, a research group dedicated to women’s health and the environment. “We can take action to reduce exposures as a precaution, based on the strong evidence we have now about the biological activity of chemicals and their effects in animal studies.”

Bisphenol-A (BPA) found widely in polycarbonated plastics such as food packaging and in the resin lining of canned foods has been shown to be measurable in the urine of over 90% of American men and women.

Eating a fresh food diet and avoiding plastic food packaging and canned food reduces levels of the hormone disruptors BPA and a phthalate known as DEHP in the body. Early developmental exposures to EDC’s may be particularly impactful. For example, prenatal exposure has been shown to affect susceptibility to known breast-cancer related carcinogens.

In 2010, the EPA listed BPA as a “chemical of concern”, declining an altogether ban and rescinding the label in 2013, so currently it is up to consumers to make educated choices at the check-out line. But, be aware that those store receipts may be a route of BPA exposure as well. Thermal receipt paper that we handle daily at supermarket registers, gas stations, and ATM machines has been shown to contain BPA readily absorbed through the skin increasing human BPA levels.

The history of breast cancer risk reduction and environmental exposures was led by women. At the forefront, activists in Long Island,  New York in the 1990’s won federal money for a breast cancer study there. In 1993, members of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition alarmed by reports of elevated breast cancer rates in eleven of fifteen towns on Cape Cod decided to create a scientific research facility of their own to investigate the causes.

They founded Silent Spring Institute to study the links between the environment and women’s health, beginning with EDC’s and breast cancer. Today, the European Commission, the President’s Cancer Panel, the Institute of Medicine, and varied scientific and medical professionals have called for rigorous review of EDC’s by regulators and national prioritization of health effects research.

Kristof, the Times columnist, has written about the need to propel chemical regulation and review of the health consequences of EDC’s to the top of the national agenda. “The challenge is that they involve complex science and considerable uncertainty, and the chemical companies — like the tobacco companies before them — create financial incentives to encourage politicians to sit on the fence. So nothing happens.”(New York Times, August 25, 2012)

Now is the time for men to stand with women on breast cancer prevention. That means men backing voluntary removal of certain chemicals in manufacturing and consumer products, men becoming educated household purchasers, and men supporting breast cancer risk reduction as invested policymakers and ardent supporters of funding for research into potential environmental hazards.

To learn more, visit or to read about practical advice to reduce your risk from everyday exposures.

photoTo purchase tickets for Forging New Frontiers in Environmental Research To Prevent Breast Cancer: 20 Years Anniversary Gala with Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, and Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History in Cambridge, MA on October 20th, please visit

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