Industry Attacks Study Linking Breast Cancer and Cleaning Products

A study suggests use of cleaning products contributes to breast cancer risk.
A study suggests use of cleaning products contributes to breast cancer risk.

A study published Tuesday in Environmental Health

suggests that use of cleaning products may contribute to increased breast cancer risk. If you were hoping this study could give you reasons to clean less, even the study authors note that the evidence is far from conclusive.

The researchers set out to learn whether household cleaning and pesticide products contribute to breast cancer because many contain chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine system or act asmammary-gland carcinogens.

Twofold Risk Among Heaviest Users

About 1,500 women from Cape Cod, Mass., participated in the study: 787 who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1988 and 1995, and 721 who weren't. The study found that breast cancer risk increased twofold among women who self-reported the highest usage of cleaning product and air freshener, compared to those reporting least usage. Little association was observed with pesticide use.

But the study has many flaws, many of which were recognized by the authors. For one, the women self-reported usage and were asked to determine usage retrospectively. The study's authors also warn that despite their attempt to remove bias from the results, this was difficult to do, and the results may be skewed. Meaning, women who believed chemicals contributed to the risk of developing breast cancer were more likely to report high use of cleaning products.

The authors conclude that it's difficult for them to distinguish between valid associations and the influence of recall bias. But, "Because exposure to chemicals from household cleaning products is a biologically plausible cause of breast cancer and avoidable, associations reported here should be further examined prospectively."

Industry Attacks the Study

The American Cleaning Institute quickly reacted and challenged what it calls "accusations leveled in a questionable study that attempts to link cleaning products to breast cancer."

"Simply put, this research is rife with innuendo and speculation about the safety of cleaning products and their ingredients," said Richard Sedlak, senior vice president of Technical and International Affairs at the ACI, which represents producers of industrial, institutional and household cleaning products plus related ingredients and packaging. "This is all based on the most cursory look at the scientific literature and the recollection of breast cancer survivors as to the products they used 15 to 20 years ago."

Further, the ACI says that "hygiene and cleanliness are the first barriers to disease prevention." True, but it doesn't hurt to be aware and research the products we're using to clean. And it doesn't hurt to live in a less-than-sterile environment.