This is an age where, love it or hate it, we are connected. Facebook, smartphones, and WiFi are just a few of the things that keep us linked in to the world around us. And if you think your breasts are just humbly sitting atop your chest, waiting to either nurture a child or attract your mate, you couldn't be more wrong. They are connected, too. More tuned in to the outside world than you could ever imagine, breasts are hypersensitive to everything from your shampoo to the food that you eat. Taking cues from the outside world, a man and woman's breast development—and health—has a lot to do with the world around them. "Breasts are unusually vulnerable to sensations and cues in our environment. They evolved this way on purpose," explains science writer Florence Williams, author of the new book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. "Breasts need to be in communication with our environment in order to know when to start developing and starting growing the mammary gland."
1. They are getting bigger—sooner. If you've paid any attention to bra offerings in the lingerie section of your favorite department store over the last few years, you've likely noticed a wider range in bra sizes. Cup sizes now reach never-before-seen dimensions like H and KK, Williams points out in her book. But it's not just the sizes that are changing. Girls' breasts are embarking on a growth spurt earlier than ever before, a major risk factor for breast cancer later in life. According to a 1997 study from the University of North Carolina, girls started developing breasts up to two years earlier than expected, between 9 and 10 years old. Delaying the onset of puberty, even for a year, can prevent thousands of breast cancer cases, according to a 2007 report from the Breast Cancer Fund. Many scientists believe chemicals exposures are causing this alarming change in the timing of pubescence.
Breast-Friendly Action: Since a longer exposure to sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone increases your risk of cancer, cutting chemicals that mimic estrogen out of your life will reduce your overall exposure. For starters, kick phthalates to the curb. These plasticizing chemicals are often found in fragranced products like shampoos, air fresheners, and soaps, and also in vinyl plastic products, such as shower curtains. Look for unscented personal care products and visit the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for safer alternatives.
2. They are vulnerable. Breasts are loaded with estrogen receptors, but too much of the hormone could spell trouble decades down the line. In fact, a pregnant woman's estrogenic exposure could set her daughter up for breast problems later in life. To highlight how exposures can wreak havoc on human health, Williams points to DES, an estrogen developed in the 1930s and given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage. "We now know DES caused terrible reproductive cancers in many of the DES daughters," Williams explains. "Those DES daughters are also at a higher risk for breast cancer."
While DES was initially believed to be more potent than the low-level estrogenic chemicals we're exposed to today, your breasts are sensitive to the hormone. "Some lab studies show that the strength of the estrogen doesn't really matter," Williams says. "But mammary glands are still changing when they see both estrogen and progesterone."
Breast-Friendly Action: Make an effort to cut back on canned foods and drinks. Most are coated in a breast-cancer promoting (and heart-harming) chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA. Pregnant women with higher BPA levels during pregnancy have been shown to have daughters with much more dense breast tissue, another leading risk factor for breast cancer.
3. Breast cancer is increasing in men. Breast cancer isn't just a female affliction. Increasingly, we're seeing it in men, too, although it's still rare. In Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, Williams points to yet another piece of evidence suggesting that environmental exposures affect breast health in a big way. One glaring example of this comes from Camp Lejeune, a major Marine Corps base in North Carolina that also bears the distinction of being home to the most contaminated public drinking water supply ever discovered in the United States. From the mid-1950s through the mid-'80s, the household water of 750,000 people was contaminated with cancer-causing benzene levels 76 times higher than the legal limit. Also in the mix? Toxic industrial solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), chemicals used to degrease machinery. Men who lived on the base now make up the largest cluster of male breast cancers ever discovered.
Breast-Friendly Action: Ask your municipal water provider for a copy of its water testing results, and then filter accordingly with NSF-approved filters for each contaminant. If you live on a well, be sure to perform water testing regularly, since no one else is likely looking out for your water quality. To avoid benzene exposure at home, avoid burning scented candles. Instead, choose a natural version, like beeswax candles.