A-Z of harmful chemicals | Breast Cancer UK

A-Z of harmful chemicals


Aluminium chloride and aluminium chlorohydrate are EDCs and limited scientific evidence may suggest aluminium in antiperspirants may be associated with increased breast cancer risk (3).

Bisphenol A (BPA)

BPA is found in plastics, white dental fillings, lenses, computer and mobile phone casings, CDs and some till receipts. BPA is a known EDC and is linked to early puberty and breast cancer(4).

Flame retardants

Flame retardants (FRs) are used in TVs, furniture, computers, carpets, polyurethane foam and paints to make them less flammable. Several are EDCs with potential links to breast cancer (5). Many are suspected to be carcinogenic, toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative (6)  There is an EU-wide restriction on several brominated flame retardants however new types of FR, including many organophosphorus FRs, are also likely to be harmful.


Glyphosate is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as probably carcinogenic to humans (7) and there is some evidence that it is weakly oestrogenic at high concentrations (8).


In the EU, parabens are permitted in confectionery, dry meat products, cereal or potato-based snacks and coated nuts (9). They act as preservatives and lengthen a product’s shelf life. Parabens are known EDCs and may be linked to breast cancer (10). They can be ingested and absorbed through the skin. 


Parfum refers to fragrance ingredients used in cosmetics products, and may include phthalates or musks which are EDCs.

Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)

PFASs (e.g. PFOA) are used in non-stick cookware, some food packaging and as water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture and carpets. PFASs release toxic fluorochemicals upon heating and over time. They are environmental pollutants, bioaccumulative, and are EDCs that have been linked to cancers (11) and possibly to breast cancer (12).


Pesticides (e.g. insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) are used on food crops, garden weeds and in the home to kill pests and weeds.  Residues may remain in food, run-off into water supplies and sprays can be inhaled.  Many of these are toxic (13) and classified as carcinogenic (14). Some are EDCs (15) with potential links to breast cancer.(16)


Phthalates increase the durability of plastics and are also used in inks, paints, perfumes and other fragranced products. Phthalates are used in nail varnish, shampoo, disposable medical products and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products such as flooring and window frames. They may sometimes be listed as DEHP or DBP. Phthalates are EDCs which may be linked to breast cancer (17) Some have been  found to be toxic to human reproductive, developmental and immune systems (18).

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

PET is used  to make  plastic  water  and juice bottles, food containers and clothing (polyester).  Although safe for short term use, after heat or prolonged storage, PET containers may release very small quantities of the heavy metal antimony (19), a suspected carcinogen and EDC, which may be linked to breast cancer (20).

Synthetic musks

Synthetic  musks (e.g. galaxolide  and tonalide) are often used to fragrance cosmetics, perfumes, aftershaves, laundry detergents and fabric softeners. They are EDCs with possible links to breast cancer (21). All are bioaccumulative, some are carcinogenic (22).


Triclosan is used in personal care products such as toothpaste, deodorants, soaps and liquid washes to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. It is sometimes added to consumer items such as socks and chopping boards. Triclosan is a known EDC which may be linked to breast cancer (23). It is also bioaccumulative.


Disclaimer: This work in no way claims to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject of all chemicals associated with breast cancers. Breast Cancer UK has used all reasonable endeavours to ensure that the content of this leaflet is correct at the time of publishing, but no warranty is given to that effect nor any liability accepted for any loss or damage arising from the use of this leaflet or information on this website.




1. e.g. reviewed in Report of the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) (2013). ‘Breast Cancer and the Environment Prioritising Prevention Prioritising Breast’. http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/assets/docs/breast_cancer_and_the_environment_prioritizing_prevention_508.pdf

2.  Darbre,  P. D. (2006). Metalloestrogens: an emerging class of inorganic xenoestrogens with potential to add to the oestrogenic burden of the human breast. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 26(3): 191-7. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16489580

3.  Darbre,  P. D. et al. (2013). Aluminium and breast cancer: Sources of exposure, tissue measurements and mechanisms of toxicological actions on breast biology. Journal of Inorganic  Biochemistry 128: 257-61. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23899626

4. Jenkins, S. et al. (2012). Endocrine-active chemicals in mammary cancer causation and prevention. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 129(3-5): 191-200. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21729753

Weber Lozada, K. and Keri, R. A. (2011). Bisphenol A Increases Mammary  Cancer Risk in Two Distinct Mouse Models of Breast Cancer. Biology of Reproduction 85 (3) 490-497. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21636739

5. Kwieciñska, P. et al. (2011). Combinatory effects of PBDEs and 17-estradiol on MCF-7 cell proliferation and apoptosis. Pharmacological Reports 63(1): 189-94. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21441628

6.  EPA (2014) Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) Technical  Fact Sheet. January 2014. www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ ffrrofactsheet_contaminant_perchlorate_january2014_ final_0.pdf

7.  Guyton, K. Z. et al. (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. Lancet  Oncology, published online March 20, 2015, doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(15)70134-8. www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)70134-8/abstract

8. Mesnage, R. et al. (2017). Evaluation of estrogen receptor alpha activation by glyphosate-based herbicide constituents. Food and Chemical Toxicology (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2017.07.025. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691517303976

9.  Regulation (EU) No. 1129/2011.eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServdo?uri=OJ:L2011:295:0001:0177:En:PDF

10. Darbre  P. D. and Harvey P. W. (2014). Parabens can enable hallmarks and characteristics of cancer in human breast epithelial cells:  a review of the literature with reference to new exposure data and regulatory status. Journal Applied Toxicology 34(9):925-938. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25047802

11. Blum, A. et al. (2015). The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs). Environmental Health Perspectives 123: A107–A111. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1509934/

12. Ghisari, M. et al. (2014). Polymorphisms in phase I and phase II genes and breast cancer risk and relations to persistent organic pollutant exposure: a case-control study in Inuit women. Environmental Health 13(1): 19. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24629213

13. Meyer-Baron, M. et al (2015). Meta-analysis on occupational exposure to pesticides – Neurobehavioral impact  and dose–response relationships. Environmental Research 136: 234-245. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25460642

114. Guyton, K. Z. et al. (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. Lancet  Oncology, published online March 20, 2015, doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(15)70134-8. www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)70134-8/abstract

15. Ewence, A. et al. (2015). An approach to the identification and regulation of endocrine disrupting pesticides. Food and Chemical Toxicology 78: 214-270. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25666658

16. Kjeldsen,  L. S. et al. (2012). Currently used  pesticides and their mixtures affect the function of sex hormone receptors and aromatase enzyme activity. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 272(2): 453-464. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0041008X13003013

Mills, P. K. and Yang, R. (2005). Breast cancer risk in Hispanic agriculturual workers in California. International Journal of Occupational and environmental Health 11:123-132. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15875887

17. Hsieh, T.-H. et al. (2012). Phthalates induce proliferation and invasiveness of estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer through the AhR/ HDAC6/c-Myc signaling pathway. FASEB Journal 26: 778–787. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22049059

18. Niermann, S. et al. (2015). Prenatal exposure to di-(2- ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) affects reproductive outcomes in female mice. Reproductive Toxicology 53: 23-32. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25765777

UNEP/WHO (2013). State  of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals 2012. www.unep.org/hazardoussubstances/Portals/9/EDC/ StateOfEDCScience.pdf

19. Westerhoff, P. et al. (2008). Antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic  used  for bottled drinking water.  Water Research 42(3) 551-556. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17707454

20. Kotsopoulos, J. et al. (2012). Plasma micronutrients, trace elements, and breast cancer in BRCA1 mutation carriers:an exploratory study. Cancer Causes Control 23: 1065–1074. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22576580

21. Bitsch, N. et al. (2002). Estrogenic activity of musk fragrances detected by the E-screen assay  using human mcf-7 cells.  Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. 43: 257-264. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12202919

22. SNSCCNFP (2004). Opinion of the scientific  committee on cosmetic products and non-food  products intended for consumers concerning musk  xylene and musk  ketone. ec.europa.eu/health/archive/ph_risk/committees/sccp/ documents/out280_en.pdf

23. Dinwiddie, M. T. et al. (2015) Recent  evidence  regarding triclosan and cancer risk. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 11, 2209-2217. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24566048

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