POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- Now online in both Spanish and English language versions at http://erbc.vassar.edu, Vassar College’s groundbreaking Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer public health project (ERBC) promotes awareness of the substances in our surroundings that increase the rate of breast cancer, to help people decrease their unhealthy exposures. The ERBC site draws information from hundreds of studies to provide detailed overviews of the scientific evidence. Its straightforward text, informative animations, glossary, and practical everyday tips help make the website a resource for people with many different levels of scientific background.
“Fewer than half of all breast cancer cases are accounted for by lifestyle and genetic factors, or by reproductive history. So exposures in the environment, both inside and outside the home, have significant implications in the high rate of breast cancer,” said project director Janet Gray, a professor of psychology as well as the director of the Vassar College program in Science, Technology, and Society. “It is crucial to inform the public about this, especially young girls who can alter habits now, hopefully diminishing their risk of developing breast cancer in the future.”
Individual sections of the ERBC feature practical suggestions to help people reduce their chances of developing breast cancer, while others describe the genetic and lifestyle factors (such as an individual’s diet, exercise, and alcohol use) that may aggravate environmental risks. “We were compelled to pull this information into one useful source to empower people to make informed decisions that minimize their exposures,” said Gray.
Jeanne Rizzo RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, a partner organization in the 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. It is such an invaluable resource to the Breast Cancer Fund that we honored Janet Gray and her ERBC team with our annual Breast Cancer Fund Hero award.”
About the science and design behind ERBC
“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. So we designed our website to be accessible for people with a basic knowledge of biology. This initial level of background information includes spectacular animations created by Vassar students,” explained Gray. “For people who want to really delve into the science, we also provide more detailed presentations of studies.”
ERBC has grown to be used from high schools to medical schools, in clinics and doctors’ offices, as well as by individuals who are concerned about cancer risks. ”One of our major design challenges remains keeping it accessible to everyone,” emphasized Gray.
To this end, Gray points to the ERBC’s practical science-based advice, which ranges across many everyday tasks and product choices, including:
Key findings on the website show that common cleaning materials contain alkylphenols—chemicals which mimic hormones and may 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 many baby bottles, food containers, and plastic wrap can disrupt the normal hormone functions of breast cells and cause cancer. The project recommends that people use the checnet.org website to determine the safety of their plastic products, and avoid materials that have recycling symbols with numbers 3, 6, and 7.
Personal Care Products
The ERBC website also explores significant research that shows there are significant amounts of cancer-causing agents in such personal care products as shampoos, lotions, and cosmetics. The site offers practical suggestions to prevent exposure to these agents.
ERBC director Janet Gray has joined many people lobbying 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. But there is a commonality in how many of these environmental chemicals act, and we ultimately 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.”
Moreover, Gray said, “What had been the standard measure of risk for many years has changed. In the past adult exposures to high doses may not have had measurable effects but low, early exposures are really having devastating and long-term effects. This science has really just solidified in the last five years.”
Reproductive history, genetic and lifestyle factors
In addition to environmental factors, the ERBC website also explores how reproductive history, as well as genetic and lifestyle factors may interact with environmental factors to increase the risk of breast cancer. For example:
- Key findings presented by the ERBC show that genetic factors do not cause the vast majority of breast cancer cases. By contrast, reproductive and lifestyle factors in interaction with environmental risks are most responsible for causing breast cancer.
- Significant research presented on the ERBC 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 indicates that smoking, high alcohol consumption, obesity after menopause, as well as low exercise levels predispose women to breast cancer.
About Janet Gray
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. Among her publications, she authored the fifth (2008) and sixth (2010) editions of the Breast Cancer Fund’s State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment.
Gray is now a board member of the Breast Cancer Fund, and remarked how significantly her work on the ERBC has changed both her career and priorities. Prior to the project, 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 work towards public education and policy change in the field of environmental health, especially as related to the connections between environmental factors and breast cancer.”
Vassar College's role and partners
Vassar College continues to strongly support the development and dissemination of the ERBC Project. The project was launched in 2006 through Vassar professor Janet Gray’s partnership with the Center for Environmental Oncology of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and ERBC’s co-sponsors continue to include the Breast Cancer Fund, Silent Spring Institute, Breast Cancer Action, and Breast Cancer Options. “I 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,” she explained.
Background on ERBC
The ERBC was initially published and distributed free worldwide on CD-ROM, generating more than 45,000 requests from over 100 countries. To maximize public access to its information, the ERBC shifted to a strictly online format in 2009. The project has also gained wide media recognition. For example, the October 2006 issue of Vogue magazine praised the ERBC for its “colorful, sophisticated graphics . . . [and] easy to follow language for those of us who aren’t epidemiologists.”Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.