Household Cleaning Products May Increase Breast Cancer Risk

New research suggests that switching to nontoxic cleaners may be a very smart, healthy move

Despite the pink KFC buckets, fund-raising walks, and early-detection campaigns surrounding the issue, doctors and scientists still have very few clues about what exactly causes breast cancer. While the evidence suggests that a poor diet and lack of exercise play a strong role, there have been few studies looking at environmental factors such as water pollution and industrial chemicals.

A new study suggests this oversight needs correcting. Researchers from the Silent Spring Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to studying the link between breast cancer and the environment, recently published a study in the journal Environmental Health that strongly hints at a connection between the disease and the household cleaning products we use every day.

THE DETAILS: The study authors used data collected from a long-running study of women living on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, between 1988 and 1995. The study group included 787 women who'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and 721 women who had not. All the women were asked standard lifestyle questions related to family history of breast cancer, diet, exercise, and socioeconomic status, as well as questions about the participants' use of several classes of cleaning products, including solid and spray air fresheners, surface cleaners, oven cleaners, and mold and mildew products.

Turns out that breast cancer was twice as prevalent in women who reported using the highest amounts of all cleaning products, compared to women who reported using the lowest amounts. Looking at the data another way, women who reported using air fresheners and mold/mildew products were at higher risk of having breast cancer, especially those who used solid air fresheners and mold cleaners containing bleach. Surface and oven cleaners didn't appear to increase breast cancer risk.

WHAT IT MEANS: The main point of the study was to show that the chemicals used in cleaning products, many of which are untested for safety, require closer scrutiny, says lead author Julia Brody, PhD, director of the Silent Spring Institute. "This is the very first look at the link between these chemicals and breast cancer in humans," she says. One of the questions asked during each interview was whether the women believed that chemicals could contribute to cancer. Interestingly, the subgroup of women who had had breast cancer and who said that chemicals contribute "a lot" also reported some of the highest levels of cleaning-product use.

But the reason the researchers chose to look at cleaning products in the first place, says Brody, is because strong laboratory evidence shows that many endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) used in cleaning products mimic estrogen, and have caused breast cancer cells to proliferate. "We're interested in the chemicals that mimic estrogen because estrogen is a known breast cancer risk factor," she says. Air fresheners contain a variety of EDCs, including synthetic musks and phthalates. Mold and mildew cleaners contain EDCs such as triclosan (the primary ingredient in antibacterial cleaning products), phthalates, and petroleum-based surfactants (which help cleaners penetrate grime).All these chemicals are easily avoidable, says Brody. "With cleaning products, it's easy to use soap, water, baking soda, and vinegar, and you should choose fragrance-free products as well," she says. But don't stop there. "It's very important for people to become involved in advocating for safer cleaning products," believes Brody.

Here are some key safety and advocacy tips regarding household cleaning products:

Call your congressmen.
The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 was just introduced into the House of Representatives and would require companies to adopt the "better safe than sorry" approach—meaning premarket safety testing—rather than the "innocent until proven guilty" rule they now apply. Call your representatives and senators and urge them to support the bill.

Use up your existing supply...
Continue to use whatever cleaning products you have on hand, says Brody, then replace them with safer alternatives when you run out.

...Then learn to make safe, nontoxic cleaners.
When you need more cleaners, don't waste money on premade products when safer alternatives easily made from baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, and even vodka are cheaper and just as effective to use.