Food choices can make a big difference -- but the ways in which we cook and clean the kitchen are also key.
The Daily Green recently invited Janet Gray, a professor at Vassar College and a board member of the Breast Cancer Fund, to share simple tips that can help reduce breast cancer risk factors. Gray developed the Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer project to communicate known and suspected environmental breast cancer risk factors to the general public. Here are some of the most surprising tips she suggested for preventing breast cancer with choices in the kitchen -- from the foods we eat to the way we cook them. For all 20 tips, see How to Prevent Breast Cancer: 20 Risk Factors.
Drink Clean Water
Although drinking fluids is absolutely crucial to good health, and water is often the healthiest – certainly the lowest-calorie – option, using tap water rather than bottled water is important for both our health and for the health of our environment. If taste is an issue, filtered tap water is a solution.
Commercial water bottles – including the small ones we carry around and then throw away, the larger gallon-sized bottles we may buy for our refrigerators, and the larger 5-gallon polycarbonate containers found in offices and other public spaces – often are made from plastics that leach chemicals like Bisphenol A, which is known to mimic hormones, and which has been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer and other diseases. Leaching of chemicals from plastic bottles is particularly common when the plastic bottles are warm, as can happen when bottles sit in the sun. If you are using a plastic bottle and the water or other fluid inside it smells "plasticky," don’t drink it! Your nose is telling you good information about the presence of contaminants in the water.
Of course, there are loads of other reasons for not drinking bottled water whenever possible. Tap water is often as safe or safer than bottled water, as public water sources are closely monitored and the results of quality testing on these waters are available to the public. Similar testing and disclosure are not required for bottled water.
And of course, the plastic required for commercial bought bottled water is a huge drain on natural petroleum resources, and adds enormously to our communities' waste burden.
To take water on the go, invest in a cheap, high-quality stainless steel water bottle, or another reusable BPA-free water bottle.
Choose (Truly) Microwave-Safe Containers
Despite the label on many plastic containers claiming that they are "microwave-safe," it is prudent to use either glass or ceramic bowls for heating foods in a microwave oven. Heating plastics can make chemicals used in their manufacturing to leach into your food. Even so-called "microwave-safe" containers have been shown to leach Bisphenol A (BPA).
Laboratory studies with rats indicate that exposures to BPA, especially during prenatal through early adolescence, predispose an individual to increased risk for developing breast cancer. Most supermarkets now sell Pyrex or other glass food storage containers that are easy to heat, allow you to freeze, thaw and heat (in oven or microwave) food safely and can be reused for years. When you do microwave your food, whether in glass or ceramic containers, cover the food with a piece of kitchen parchment paper, or other non-dyed, non-bleached paper product. Or just put a ceramic plate on top as a cover.
See 10 more "microwave safe" myths. Photo: Dave White / Istock
Eat Soy (But Not Too Much)
Plant estrogens, also called phytoestrogens, are natural compounds found in many foods. There are two main groups: the isoflavones and the lignans. Isoflavones, which include genistein, are found in soy beans and are the most widely studied of the phytoestrogens. Lignans are found in flaxseed, cereals, fruits and berries. Phytoestrogens are strikingly similar in chemical structure to the common estrogen estradiol and and can mimic many of the effects of the natural hormone. Most research on health effects of phytoestrogens, including effects on breast cancer risk, has been done on soy products and genistein.
Most (but not all) studies suggest that regular intake of soy, especially during adolescence, as a well-integrated component of a regular diet (as opposed to a dietary supplement like a pill), may be protective against breast cancer. On the other hand, some studies examining the effects of ingesting high levels of soy supplements (e.g., genistein pills or isoflavone protein extracts) suggest that this may lead to changes that increase the risk of breast cancer.
So eat a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in vegetables (preferably locally grown and pesticide-free!) including soy products. Introduce your children to soy products (soy flour, tofu, etc.) early in their development, as part of their regular diet. But stay away from concentrated or isolated forms of soy derivatives, including genistein pills.
Photo: Alina Solovyova-Vincent / Istock
Use Natural Cleansers
Many household cleaning products, including chlorine bleach, contain chemicals that may be detrimental to our health. Just look at the labels: Many say "use in ventilated area," or "seek medical help if ingested," or "skin or eye irritant," etc. Unfortunately, there is very little regulatory oversight of cleaning products and many are very poorly labeled, with phrases like "secret formula" being used to tantalize the consumer into thinking there is special magic in the cleanser. In reality, many household cleaning products contain chemicals like alkylphenols (example: 4-nonylphenol) that are endocrine disruptors (endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones and have been implicated in increased risk for breast cancer and other health problems) as well as toxins that affect both our brains and our reproductive systems.
For many household tasks, simple baking soda (a gentle abrasive) or dilute warm vinegar work as well if not better than potentially toxic alternatives. For other suggestions see these guides at the Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer project and The Daily Green.
Photo: Istock / Photo Illustration by Gloria Dawson
Use Stainless Steel or Cast Iron Cookware
Aluminum is a metal that mimics estrogen. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that aluminum can cause direct damage to DNA in several biological systems. Although studies have not shown a direct causal link between aluminum and breast cancer risk (little work has been reported in this area), breast tissue has been shown to concentrate aluminum and it is found in highest levels in the quadrant of the breast near the underarm region, the same area where the highest proportion of breast cancers are originally diagnosed.
Use alternatives to cooking utensils made out of aluminum, especially those that are older. Instead, use pots or pans made out of stainless steel or cast iron. Newer anodized aluminum pots and pans are considerably safer than older, non-anodized forms as the process of anodizing prevents the aluminum from leaching into food as it is being cooked.
One other possible source of aluminum in breast tissue may be use of underarm antiperspirants. Try to avoid using underarm cosmetics that contain aluminum. Check for safer alternatives at the Environmental Working Group’s Safe Cosmetics database or use home-made solutions like diluted baking soda.
Find a natural deodorant that really works. Photo: Cuisinart
Eat Clean Fish
Intake of certain foods that may contain high levels of PCBs and dioxins should be limited, especially for pregnant women and children. Both are known carcinogens that have been linked with increased risk for breast cancer. Although PCBs have been banned from production and use in the US since the 1970s, they remain in our environment, including our rivers and lakes. PCBs bioaccumulate, meaning they are more concentrated in predatory species than in prey, so they can be highly concentrated in fish at the top of the food chain.
If eating locally caught fish, eat smaller varieties such as bluegill, pumpkinseed, stream trout, smelt and yellow perch. Limit consumption of fish that are fattier (and more likely to accumulate PCBs) like lake trout, or fish that are bottom dwellers like catfish. These latter species are more likely to be contaminated with chemicals including PCBs. Consult fish advisories published by the Environmental Protection Agency or state health and wildlife agencies before eating fish caught in local waters. Before heading to the fish counter, consult nonprofit groups that monitor contaminant levels in fish.
Some farmed salmon and sea bass have been shown to have particularly high levels of PCBs; opt for wild fish for these varieties.
In general, careful preparation and cooking can reduce the amount of PCBs consumed. Fillet fish by removing as much fat as possible. Also cook using methods such as baking or broiling in a pan with a rack, rather than frying – frying may actually seal some of the toxic chemicals within the remaining fat of the fish, while other methods may ease the cooking off of natural fats, leading to the dripping out of accumulated chemicals.
Photo: Grant V. Faint / Getty Images
Avoid (Most) Canned Foods
In addition to being found in many plastic bottles, Bisphenol A is also found in the epoxy resin liner of most canned fruits and vegetables. The BPA from this lining has been shown to leach into the vegetables in the can. Studies have shown that amount leached is enough to cause breast cancer cells to grow and proliferate in the lab.
One company that makes BPA free canned beans is Eden Organic, showing that the technology is there to make cans for most fruits and vegetables without using BPA-contaminated products.
Another reason for buying fresh or frozen vegetables is that they tend to have few preservatives and less added sodium. And buying fresh vegetables means you can talk directly with the farmers to learn more about what pesticides and other chemicals they use (or don’t use) during the growing season.
Don't Poison Yourself When Fighting Pests
Many common pesticides (such as ant, roach and mice poisons) have been linked to a variety of human diseases, including breast cancer. It probably shouldn't surprise us that these compounds can be dangerous; they are designed to kill insects with which we share many common biological systems!
Several pesticides are known endocrine disruptors (they disrupt natural hormone-signaling pathways), and through these mechanisms have been implicated in increased risk for breast cancer. In addition to effects by themselves, these chemicals have been shown to have additive effects with other kinds of endocrine disruptors. In other words, exposures to small doses of pesticides may have greater effects when people are also exposed to other chemicals to which we are all commonly exposed.
Unfortunately, when pesticides are applied in the home, they don’t just kill bugs and disappear. Rather they often stick around (for years or decades) and are found in the air and on the dust we touch and breathe, meaning that we all have sustained and multiple exposures to these toxic chemicals. And when we apply them outside, pesticides enter the air we breath, fall on the lawn on which we walk and our children play and eventually seep into our water. The result can be devastating for the wildlife with which we share our world, and also may have significant impact on rates of human diseases, including breast cancer.
The best way to minimize insects inside and outside the home is through careful and regular cleaning. Integrated Pest Management (also known as IPM) approaches provide chemical-free (or low-chemical) strategies for protecting home environments, yards and agricultural crops. The University of California at Davis has published a good resource for learning more about IPM applications for the home and garden.