Every year the American Public Health Association honours the achievements of scientific researchers for efforts towards improving public health. This year the winners of the APHA Scientific Award, announced today in Boston, USA, are James Brophy and Andrew Watterson from the University of Stirling, UK, and colleagues, for two outstanding research articles on environmental factors contributing to breast cancer risk. Both articles were published last year; one in New Solutions and one in Environmental Health, the latter titled ‘Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case control study’.
“As researchers and public health advocates we are delighted with this recognition from what is the oldest and most noteworthy public health association in the world”, said Brophy. “This Award will encourage a closer examination of the breast cancer risks faced by countless women employed in a host of chemical-laden industries and will advance the development of precautionary strategies.”
In their study in Environmental Health, Brophy and colleagues analysed over 1000 cases of breast cancer and over 1000 controls in Southern Ontario, Canada, each with detailed occupational and reproductive histories. Their findings revealed that across all occupational sectors, from farming and plastics manufacturing to food canning and gambling/bars, women with potentially high exposures to endocrine disrupters and carcinogens for a period of ten years showed an increased risk for breast cancer.
Since the publication of their articles, further studies have continued to explore how breast cancer risk is impacted by a variety of factors, as Watterson recounts: “The research has been followed in the last year with scientific papers discussing breast cancer and shift/night work, and breast cancer and its links with cadmium exposures, endocrine disruptors and pesticide applications. Additional research on chemicals used in the plastics industry linked to breast cancer has revolved around endocrine disruptors and there is much going on with regard to risk assessments, for example, of BPA.”
“The debate about the merits of toxicological evidence against epidemiological evidence – and the challenge of bringing them together – is very relevant.”
Andrew Watterson, University of Stirling
Growing insights into the potentially carcinogenic effects of different substances and/or situations has helped progress the field. However translating these findings into preventative measures to reduce exposure to known experimental breast carcinogens has proven difficult.
“The latest research is picking up the issues of the difficulty of obtaining epidemiological proof of carcinogenicity from one endocrine disrupter or one pesticide or one solvent, when multiple and complex exposures to a range of carcinogens may occur. […] How do we inform public health policy when the scientific studies are necessarily and initially almost inevitably fragmented and incomplete?”, questions Watterson.
Reports from independent agencies may go part way to bridging the gap between scientific results and the implementation of preventative measures. “Perhaps the recent publication of the second volume of the European Environment Agency‘s ‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings’ is the way forward with regard to this because there is a consensus on the public health importance of breast cancer”, says Watterson.
Watterson and Brophy continue to investigate new ways to advance work on environmental factors affecting breast cancer risk, as well as engaging with a wide range of stakeholders about possible interventions to address these occupational risks.