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Breast Cancer Could be Linked to Butyl Benzyl Phthalate Exposure Early in Life

Dec 7, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), a common chemical found in plastics, could be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. A new study of BBP finds that the chemical, which most people encounter every day of their lives, caused faster breast development and genetic changes in newborn female lab rats.  Both early breast development and genetic changes in the makeup of breast tissue could predispose animals - and most likely humans as well - to breast cancer later in life.

BBP is commonly used to soften polymers and plastics, and is found in every household.   BBP is used in the manufacture of vinyl floor tiles, carpets, plastic pipes, air fresheners, lipstick and a myriad of other everyday items.  It has long been known that BBP and other phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can mimic the effect of hormones, which in turn can lead to significant changes in biological processes.  Such substances have already been implicated in low sperm counts and neurological problems in humans.

This newest BBP study was conducted at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.  Researchers there fed lactating rats BBP, something that their offspring would have absorbed through their milk.  The baby rats only received doses of BBP equal to that which is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Yet, the female offspring exhibited rapid breast development, and genetic changes in the makeup of their mammary glands.  Altering breast development could lead to more cancer down the road, the researchers said.  The Fox Chase BBP study is the first experiment to demonstrate that exposure to BBP in early life has the potential to alter breast development.

Dr. Jose Russo, who led the Fox Chase BBP breast cancer study, told that the new findings strongly suggest that BBP exposure needs to be limited.  "To prevent breast cancer in adulthood, it is necessary to protect both the newborn child and the mother from exposure to this compound that has an estrogenic effect and could act as an endocrine disruptor," Russo said.

The results of the Fox Chase BBP study are only preliminary.  Scientist there are also working to see how rats exposed to BBPs early in life respond to cancer causing chemicals once they are grown.  They are also studying the effects of BBP exposure prior to birth, and are evaluating a group of girls to see if BBP exposure might have an affect on their development, including the speed of their breast development and the onset of their first menstrual period.  

The Fox Chase study is not the only one that has suggested that phthalate exposure is detrimental to humans, and evidence is piling up that use of these chemicals should be curtailed. In March, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggested that exposure to phthalates could be fueling the obesity epidemic by contributing to abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in men.  Just this October, California passed a law that banned the use of BBPs in toys and other children's products.

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