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Breast Cancer and the Environment: Controversial and Emerging Exposures Workshop Summary

Understanding how widespread exposure to known and potential carcinogens in the environment influences risk of breast cancer is critical for reducing the number of women who will be affected by this disease. Rapidly evolving science, including advances in epidemiologic and analytical methods and highly sensitive tools to detect very small amounts of carcinogens, along with mutational signatures in tumors, are opening exciting research opportunities. 

To spark new thinking on using these resources in future research, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) organized a May 2021 virtual scientific workshop on Breast Cancer and the Environment: Controversial and Emerging Exposures. The goal of this “state of the science” workshop was to identify new research opportunities and approaches to address knowledge gaps on how chemical and physical agents might impact people’s risk of developing breast cancer.

Several important points emerged from the discussion, including:

  • Despite decades of research to identify environmental carcinogens in humans, evidence is limited, with only a few well-established risk factors.
  • Challenges to identifying risks include the nature of environmental exposures (e.g., often low level and widespread, with changes in exposure over time or multiple exposures at once) and the fact that relatively few women are employed in occupational settings, where exposure to specific chemicals may be higher than in the general environment.
  • Studying diverse populations is critical to informing prevention strategies, particularly in minority populations and low-income communities, who are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in the environment and typically underrepresented in research studies.
  • Advancing knowledge will require novel study designs, evaluation of concordance across animal and human research, consideration of windows of susceptibility, and studying women from racial/ethnic minority groups and underserved populations.

Read the full workshop summary.

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