Pittsburgh (Penna.) Post-Gazette, November 8, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Use of personal care products that contain hormone-like compounds might explain why young African-American women are at greater risk of breast cancer.]

By Anita Srikameswaran,

Use of personal care products that contain estrogen or hormone-like compounds might help explain why young African-American women are at greater risk of developing breast cancer, local scientists say.

In an upcoming issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's center for environmental oncology point out that black women under 40 have a higher breast cancer incidence than white women of similar age, and they are more likely to die of the cancer regardless of age.

"We have to ask what else is going on," said senior investigator and center director Devra Davis. "We think that these products could be playing a role."

Personal care products like hair straighteners and deodorants may contain estrogens and preservative compounds called parabens that mimic hormones.

"Some of these compounds are widely used in the African-American community throughout life, starting at very young ages," Dr. Davis said.

In a report from the mid-90s, black toddlers began to develop breasts and pubic hair when their parents applied hair pomades to their scalps.

"When they stopped using these products, the breasts went away," Dr. Davis said. "Now anything that can make breasts grow in an infant has got to be problematic."

Manufacturers do not have to list product ingredients, so "I can't tell [people] anything about what's in them now," she said. "I do not know. Nobody does because they're not required to make it public."

Dr. Davis said she would like to get manufacturers to stop using the questionable compounds. As she put it, "We don't want to just study the problem. We want to make the problem go away."

More research needs to be done to verify or refute a link between the products and breast cancer risk, said Maryann Donovan, scientific director of the environmental oncology center and leader of the study.

"We don't really know yet, but we certainly can document that these chemicals are definitely causing changes... that are biologically important," she said.

In addition to conducting experiments to see how breast cells behave when mingled with the compounds, researchers must try to reconstruct exposures that might have put black breast cancer patients at greater risk, Dr. Donovan said.

Suspicious chemicals also can be found in everything from suntan lotion to milk, she noted. Puberty is occurring at lower ages, the ratio of male to female births is changing and other such shifts are raising concerns.

"We need to look at these as wake-up calls and do something differently," Dr. Donovan said. "If we don't wrestle with this beast, and do something about it, it's never going to go away."

Scientists from the environmental oncology center and Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health reviewed breast cancer rates among black and white women from 1975 to 2002.

Invasive breast cancer incidence declined overall, but African- American women still remained at higher risk, they said. The findings were presented this week in Boston during the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.