Medical hypothesis: Xenoestrogens as preventable causes of breast cancer

D. L. Davis, H. L. Bradlow, M. Wolff, T. Woodruff, D. G. Hoel, H. Anton-Culver

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

505 Scopus citations


Changes in documented risk factors for breast cancer and rates of screening cannot completely explain recent increases in incidence or mortality. Established risk factors for breast cancer, including genetics, account for at best 30% of cases. Most of these risk factors can be linked to total lifetime exposure to bioavailable estrogens. Experimental evidence reveals that compounds such as some chlorinated organics, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), triazine herbicides, and pharmaceuticals affect estrogen production and metabolism and thus function as xenoestrogens. Many of these xenoestrogenic compounds also experimentally induce mammary carcinogenesis. Recent epidemiologic studies have found that breast fat and serum lipids of women with breast cancer contain significantly elevated levels of some chlorinated organics compared with noncancer controls. As the proportion of inherited breast cancer in the population is small, most breast cancers are due to acquired mutations. Thus, the induction of breast cancer in the majority of cases stems from interactions between host factors including genetics and environmental carcinogens. We hypothesize that substances such as xenoestrogens increase the risk of breast cancer by mechanisms which include interaction with breast-cancer susceptibility genes. A series of major epidemiologic studies need to be developed to evaluate this hypothesis, including studies of estrogen metabolism, the role of specific xenoestrogenic substances in breast cancer, and relevant genetic-environmental interactions. In addition, experimental studies are needed to evaluate biologic markers of suspect xenoestrogens and biologic markers of host susceptibility and identify pathways of estrogenicity that affect the development of breast cancer. If xenoestrogens do play a role in breast cancer, reductions in exposure will provide an opportunity for primary prevention of this growing disease. Tests for estrogenicity could become critical screening tools with which to assess the potential health consequences of new and existing chemicals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)372-377
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Health Perspectives
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1993
Externally publishedYes


  • Aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Breast cancer
  • Chlorinated organics
  • Genetic susceptibility
  • Pesticides
  • Xenobiotics
  • Xenoestrogens


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