Controversial preservatives linked to cancer

The apparent link between parabens and breast cancer.

It was in 2004 that researchers reported the occurrence of a series of compounds known as parabens in human breast cancer tissue, sparking a debate about the function of these compounds and their potential role in breast cancer. This report triggered numerous other studies that also implicated parabens without providing any definitive proof of their involvement.

These controversial compounds are alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid which are added as antimicrobial preservatives to pharmaceuticals, foods and personal care products like shaving gels, body lotions, antiperspirants and moisturizers. They have since been measured in blood, urine and human milk and have been shown to enter the bloodstream intact following the topical application of cosmetic creams.

The parabens are of concern because they have estrogenic effects. Most breast cancers feed on estrogen and therapies can involve reducing its circulating levels, so this has been taken as further support for the involvement of parabens in breast cancer. It was suggested that application of underarm deodorants would allow parabens to be absorbed into the breast due to the close proximity. This appeared to be borne out by the fact that many breast cancers form near the axilla.

One problem with the original study was its small sample size with only 20 samples of breast cancer tissue tested. Now, the lead author of that study, Philippa Darbre from the University of Reading, has extended the work by examining 160 samples from 40 patients with breast cancer who had been given mastectomies. She teamed up with surgeons Lester Barr and George Metaxas from the University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, and Christopher Harbach and Luc-Alain Savoy from SGS M-Scan.

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Categories: Europe, Health, Science

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