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Environmental chemicals implicated in cancer, say experts

New research at the University of Liverpool suggests that environmental contaminants, such as pesticides, are more influential in causing cancer than previously thought.

University of Liverpool

New research at the University of Liverpool suggests that environmental contaminants, such as pesticides, are more influential in causing cancer than previously thought.

Previous studies in cancer causation have often concluded that exposure to carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals, for example, organochlorines (OC) - found in pesticides and plastics - occurs at concentrations that are too low to be considered a major factor in cancerous disease. Now new research at the University of Liverpool, published in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, has found that exposure even to small amounts of these chemicals may result in an increased risk of developing cancer - particularly for infants and young adults.

The research consisted of systematic reviewing of recent studies and literature concerning the environment and cancer, and was supported by the Cancer Prevention and Education Society. Professor Vyvyan Howard and John Newby, from the University's Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology, also found that genetic variations, which can predispose some people to cancer, may interact with environmental contaminants and produce an enhanced effect.

Professor Howard said: "Organochlorines are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which disperse over long distances and bioaccumulate in the food chain. For humans the main source of OC exposure is from diet, primarily through meat and dairy products. Children are exposed to dioxin, a by-product of OCs, through food; dioxin and other POPs can also cross the placenta and endanger babies in the womb. Breastfed infants can be exposed to OCs with endocrine disrupting properties that have accumulated in breast milk. Our research looks at involuntary exposure to these chemicals in the air, food and water.

"Environmental contaminants - in particular synthetic pesticides and organochlorines with hormone-disrupting properties - could be a major factor in causing hormone-dependent malignancies such as breast, testicular and prostate cancers. Preventative measures for these types of cancer have focused on educating the public about the danger of tobacco smoke, improving diet and promoting physical activity. We should now, however, be focusing on trying to reduce exposure to problematic chemicals."

The research team has also looked at anecdotal evidence, from practicing physicians in pre-industrial societies, which suggests that cancerous disease was rare amongst particular communities, such as the Canadian Inuits and Brazilian Indians. This suggests that cancer is a disease of industrialisation.

Professor Howard added: "The World Health Organisation estimates that between one and five percent of malignant disease in developed countries is attributed to environmental factors; but our research suggests this figure may have been underestimated."

Jamie Page, Chairman of Cancer Prevention and Education said: "This research is very important and suggests that there are links between chemicals and cancer. It is our opinion that if progress if to be made in the fight against cancer, far more attention and effort must be made to reduce human exposure to harmful chemicals."

Professor Howard's finding will be published in the Taylor & Francis Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine and can be viewed at


Notes to editors

1. Increasing cancer incidence in the United Kingdom from 1971-1999; (Office for National Statistics 1971-99)

  • Non- Hodgkin's Lymphoma has risen 196% in men and 214% in women,
  • The incidence of prostate cancer and testicular cancer have increased by 152% and 139% respectively,
  • Breast cancer has risen by 75%; and multiple myeloma has increased by 100% and 86% in men and women respectively,
  • The incidence of prostate cancer now exceeds the incidence of lung cancer in men.

2. Worldwide since 1990 cancer incidence has increased by 19% and cancer incidence rates are set to increase by 50% by 2020. (World Cancer Report 2003, Frankiish, 2003, Shibuya et al., 2002)

3. The overall rate of childhood, adolescent and young adult cancer incidence rate is increasing by 1.5% per annum. (Birch et al., 2002, Stiller, 2002, McNally et al., 2002)

4. The University of Liverpool is one of the UK's leading research institutions. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £90 million annually.

5. The objectives of The Cancer Prevention and Education Society are 'to advance education and relieve sickness by the publication and dissemination of research and reduction in the incidence of cancer.' More information about the CPES can be found on

6. Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine is a quarterly Journal published by Taylor and Francis. The editorial scope includes allergy and environmental medicine. International in outlook and in content, the journal's original articles and state-of-the-art reports on current clinical practice are peer reviewed by practising clinicians and researchers.

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