The Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer project, an innovative and acclaimed public health initiative, is now available online in English and Spanish

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY-Janet Gray, professor of psychology and director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Vassar College, continues to guide initiatives of the groundbreaking Vassar Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer (ERBC) project, now available online at, in both English and Spanish language versions. Throughout October 2009, Gray also offers advice on how to prevent breast cancer on the Daily Green and Yahoo websites.

The new ERBC website is based upon the ERBC multimedia CD first released in June 2006, which was produced by a team of faculty, students, and technical professionals from Vassar College. The project, which grew from a discussion in one of Gray's seminars, was initially envisioned as a small endeavor. However the project has now transcended boundaries and interests, with word spreading through stories in Vogue, Cosmo Girl, and the Chicago Tribune; online at WebMD, Daily Green, and Yahoo; and by word of mouth, from cancer survivor to survivor, and friend to friend.

"ERBC is an ongoing public health initiative, which is a very comprehensive introduction to the complex science exploring the connections between environmental factors and breast cancer," stated Janet Gray, director of the ERBC project. "It is crucial to inform the public, especially young girls who can alter habits now, hopefully diminishing their risk of developing breast cancer in the future."

In a coherent and user-friendly medium, ERBC synthesizes research from more than 200 scientific sources published in top-tier medical and environmental journals. Simple and informative videos as well as a glossary make the website a useful resource for people with different levels of scientific background to learn about everyday materials that may cause breast cancer.

Jeanne Rizzo RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, one of the partners in producing the ERBC project, remarked that, "ERBC is an invaluable learning tool that provides user-friendly, interactive access to the complicated world of breast cancer causation and prevention. The Web version makes this essential tool even more accessible." She concluded, "It is such an invaluable resource to the Breast Cancer Fund that we honored Janet Gray and the full ERBC team with a Breast Cancer Fund Hero award."

One of the many advantages to moving the ERBC information online is the ability to now update the scientific data on a regular basis, as new studies are published. Also, as Gray noted,  "People will not have to wait for my reply to their request to send them a CD, but will be able to begin their research into the ways to reduce the environmental risks immediately, from any computer with web access."

"As ERBC is used in high schools, all the way through to medical schools, in clinics and doctors' offices, and by individuals on their own who are concerned about cancer risks, one of our major design challenges was to try to think of ways that it would be accessible to everyone," explained Gray. "The project was developed to show that all of us have some control over many of the factors that increase the risk of contracting breast cancer. By informing visitors of these possible risks, the website encourages sensible choices that may reverse the trend towards ever more women and men being diagnosed with breast cancer."

The ERBC project emphasizes that interactions of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors determine whether or not an individual develops breast cancer. By promoting awareness of the risks in people's surroundings that are known to increase the rate of cancer, the website aims to help visitors make choices that decrease exposure to these substances.

"Fewer than half of all breast cancer cases are caused by risk factors including lifestyle, inherited factors, and reproductive history. Risks in the environment, both inside and outside the home, have been implicated in the high rate of breast cancer, and we were compelled to pull this information into one user-friendly source to empower people to make informed decisions and to minimize their exposure to these substances," said Gray.

Gray, a board member of the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), remarked how significantly her work on ERBC has changed both her career and priorities. Before her work on ERBC, she described herself as a "neuroscientist studying hormone effects on brain metabolisms in rats." When work began on ERBC, she said, "I closed up my lab and shifted my life for this, because of intellectual interests and the fact that I am very allergic to rats. It was the right moment, coming from what I describe as an ‘intellectual midlife crisis.'"

While ERBC remains apolitical, Gray has joined other Breast Cancer Fund representatives lobbying lawmakers in Washington, DC, urging Congress to pass a law banning the use of Bisphenol-A (BPA) in food packaging.  BPA is a major component of polycarbonate plastics and food can liners and has been used in containers, wrappers, and plastic sports bottles.  It is just one of the many chemicals whose risks are noted on the ERBC website.

"One of the frustrations with the whole BPA issue is convincing people that we shouldn't be going after one chemical at a time- phthalates last year; BPA this year; goodness only knows what next year.  There is a commonality in how many of these environmental chemicals act, and we need to come up with a system of serious regulation if we want to decrease their impacts on our health," Gray explained. "Now there is good data showing that very early fetal exposure and early childhood exposures are predisposing animals and people to later risk for breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, neurological disorders."

Contrary to what was the standard measure of risk for many years, Gray elucidated the current debate and noted, "Adult exposures to high doses may not have had measurable effects but low, early exposures are really having devastating and long-term effects and this science has really just solidified in the last five years."

"The usual toxicology model is that you give a really large dose to adults and then titer it down and until you find the dose that has no effect," she explained. "In doing that researchers have missed how the very low doses interact in real life, with mixtures of a little BPA, a little pesticide, and a little bit of stuff from your lotions. It all adds up."

Gray acknowledged that there is no perfect protection, however families and consumers should be aware of the potential dangers and reference to the ERBC website is a good starting place for this.

Since 2006, Vassar has honored more than 45,000 requests for the ERBC CD from over 100 countries. However, as demand has grown, the decision to phase out the CD was made, instead providing access to this valuable project online. Now the information in ERBC is available for anyone who has access to the World Wide Web.

The design of ERBC was extolled in the October 2006 issue of Vogue. Jancee Dunn noted that ERBC offers "colorful, sophisticated graphics . . . [and] easy to follow language for those of us who aren't epidemiologists."

"For this project, we assumed that those using the site would have a basic knowledge of introductory biology," noted Dr. Gray. "We designed the site (like the CD), so that the general public can view some of the spectacular animations created by Vassar students and the first level of the pamphlets, and find the necessary information. But for those who want more, there are different and more detailed presentations of studies, so they can really delve into the science."

The English and Spanish language websites were designed for ease of reference and review by the technical professional team of Chris Silverman, web designer in Vassar's College Relations Office; Vassar alumnus and cognitive science major Josh de Leeuw, (class of 2008), who is assistant director of Vassar's Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory; and Cristian Opazo-Castillo (academic computing consultant at Vassar). The design incorporates individual sections that provide detailed overviews of the scientific evidence on environmental risks that may cause breast cancer; offer brief introductions to genetic and lifestyle factors that may aggravate these environmental risks; and give suggestions on minimizing the chances of developing breast cancer.

-Cleaning Agents

Key findings on the website show common cleaning materials contain alkylphenols-chemicals that mimic hormones that cause cancer. Household product manufacturers often do not list whether their products contain alkylphenols, so it is safer for consumers to use natural cleaners like baking soda and vinegar, or call manufacturers to ask if their products contain alkylphenols.

Similarly alarming, the website presents evidence that shows plastics used in baby bottles, food containers, and plastic wrap can disrupt the normal hormone functions of breast cells and cause cancer. The project recommends users to visit to determine the safety of their plastic products and avoid the use of materials that have recycling symbols with numbers 3, 6, and 7.

-Personal Care Products
The website also explores significant research that show there are significant amounts of cancer-causing agents in personal care products including shampoos, lotions, and cosmetics. The site offers practical suggestions to prevent exposure to these agents.

In addition to these environmental factors, also explores the reproductive history, genetic, and lifestyle factors that may interact with environmental factors to increase the risk of breast cancer. 

--Significant research presented on the site demonstrates that women who breastfeed for longer and have children before they reach 35 have a lower susceptibility to cancer-causing chemicals.

--Studies cited by the project also present evidence that proves smoking, high alcohol consumption, obesity after menopause, as well as low exercise levels predispose women to breast cancer.

--The project also shows that genetic factors do not cause the vast majority of breast cancer cases. In contrast, reproductive and lifestyle factors in interaction with environmental risks are most responsible for causing breast cancer.

Professor of psychology and director of Vassar College's multidisciplinary program in Science, Technology, and Society, Janet Gray's background is in behavioral neuroscience. Her laboratory research has focused on the effects of estrogens and mixed antiestrogens, especially tamoxifen, on brain activity and behavior. In recent years, the focus of her research and writing has turned toward engaging the public in the complex issues surrounding breast cancer and environmental risks through the ERBC project. She is the author of the fifth edition (2008) of the Breast Cancer Fund's State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment.

Vassar College, renowned for pioneering achievements in education and a commitment to public service, continues to strongly support the ongoing development of ERBC, with the intent to increase the national dialogue about possible risks for breast cancer, as well as practical suggestions for decreasing exposures to those risks.

Vassar partnered with the Center for Environmental Oncology of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to produce the ERBC project.  Co-sponsors of ERBC include the Silent Spring Institute, Breast Cancer Fund, Breast Cancer Action, and Breast Cancer Options. Vassar chose these partners because of their crucial work on the frontlines of the issue of environmental risks and breast cancer, bringing together diverse backgrounds in scientific research, advocacy, and education.

For more information, please visit  

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.


Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, October 7, 2009