Updated: October 3, 2012 5:16PM
The American breast is bigger than ever before.
And breasts are developing in girls earlier than at any time in recorded history.
But do breasts have a future?
The biology of the breast is changing — and not for the better, says journalist Florence Williams, author of the new book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95). She details a number of alarming trends that may be contributing to the United State’s high rate of breast cancer — today and in years to come.
Women’s breasts are expanding with their waistlines, Williams says. The average bra size has grown from a 34B to a 36C in just a generation. That’s troubling, given that weight gain been associated with an increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.
Girls also are hitting puberty earlier than ever before — another trend that increases their long-term breast cancer risk. About 15 percent of all American girls begin developing breasts at age 7, according to an influential 2010 study in Pediatrics.
Breasts today also are under assault from pollutants, Williams says. Because chemicals such as PCBs and mercury get stored in fatty tissue, they tend to end up in breasts — and breast milk. “Breast-feeding, it turns out, is a very efficient way to transfer our society’s industrial flotsam to the next generation,” Williams writes. “Our breasts soak up pollution. ... Breasts carry the burden of the mistakes we have made.”
While nursing her second child, Williams had a sample of her own milk analyzed. It contained perchlorate, an ingredient in jet fuel, as well as chemical flame retardants, at levels 10 to 100 times higher than in European women. Williams says she believes in breast-feeding, and she spends considerable time in her book noting its benefits for a baby’s brain, body and immune system.
But she notes that many industrial toxins will persist in our bodies — and our children’s bodies — for years, long enough for today’s baby girls to pass them on to their own children.
“What happens in our environment is reflected in our breasts,” she says. “If we really care about human health, we need to care about our planet.”
Surprisingly, doctors stand to learn a great deal about the environment’s effect on the breast by studying men, Williams says.
Marine Pfc. Joe Glowacki was exposed to a wide variety of chemicals when he arrived at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1959, at age 17. At the time, the Marine Corps didn’t realize the danger of allowing petroleum and other chemicals to pollute the groundwater. The base is now home to dozens of Superfund cleanup sites, and at one point Camp Lejeune had the “most contaminated drinking water supply ever discovered in the United States,” Williams writes.
Three years ago, Glowacki found a lump on the right side of his chest. “The next thing you know, I’m one of the girls,” says Glowacki, now 70, of Medford, N.J. Glowacki was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and chemotherapy. About 2,190 of the 229,060 breast cancers diagnosed in the United States each year are in men, according to the American Cancer Society. More than 70 have been diagnosed in men who have lived at Camp Lejeune, Williams writes.
“In 1957, who knew all of this?” Williams writes. “We disposed of our excesses by pouring them down the drain.”
Gannett News Service