Breast Cancer Linked to Fire Retardant PBDE Chemicals

We have reported on numerous studies over the past few years linking serious health outcomes to endocrine-disrupting PBDE fire retardant chemicals. Now a new study has confirmed a link with yet another serious health outcome: Brominated fire retardant (BFR) chemicals in household furniture, products (including cookware) and electronics like laptop computers appear to increase the risk of breast cancer.


Brominated fire retardant (BFR) chemicals (a primary one being PBDEs) have molecules that separate from whatever product they are contained in and easily escape to household dust, air and food, thereby increasing human exposure.  In recent years, fire retardant chemicals found in many household items have been found in numerous scientific studies to be endocrine disruptors.  In other words, these chemicals disrupt human hormonal systems, which in turn, adversely affect many other bodily processes that can lead to serious health conditions–one of them being cancer.  In the case of breast cancer, a primary way this can happen is that exposure to fire retardant chemicals can cause problems for mammary glands because their development is highly regulated by hormones.  Endocrine disruptors, such as BFRs, can mimic hormones and cause cells to respond inappropriately.

Study overview

In their experiments, the research team exposed female rodents to a mixture of BFRs, similar to that found in house dust, prior to mating, during gestation and during lactation. Biologists were able to observe the effects on the offspring at two stages of development and on the mothers.

Study results overview

In pre-pubertal rats, the team noted early development of mammary glands after exposure to the fire retardant chemicals.  For pubescent rats, the results of their study published in 2019 showed a deregulation of communication between cells. Similar consequences were observed in female genitors in a 2017 study.  All of these effects are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. 

“Young women exposed to BFRs in utero and through breastfeeding are now in the early stages of fertility. Their mothers are in their fifties, a period of increased risk for breast cancer.”

-Dr. Isabelle Plante, environmental toxicologist and co-director of the Intersectoral Centre for Endocrine Disruptor Analysis

What does this mean for regulating these chemicals in our products?

In all three studies, most of the effects were observed when subjects were exposed to the lowest dose, from dust, and not the higher doses.  Researchers conclude that this observation raises questions about the current legislation for endocrine disrupting chemicals. To evaluate the “safe” dose, experts normally give an increasing dose and then, when they observe an effect, identify it as the maximum dose.   However, with endocrine disruptors, the long-term consequences would be caused by lower doses.  Although counter-intuitive, this observation comes from the fact that high doses trigger a toxic response in the cells.  But when the body is exposed to lower doses, it mimics the concentration of hormones in our body, and the consequences can trigger deregulation of the hormonal system–which can lead to serious health outcomes.

Journal Reference:  Rita-Josiane Gouesse, Elham Dianati, Alec McDermott, Michael G Wade, Barbara Hales, Bernard Robaire, Isabelle Plante. In Utero and Lactational Exposure to an Environmentally Relevant Mixture of Brominated Flame Retardants Induces a Premature Development of the Mammary Glands. Toxicological Sciences, 2021; 179 (2): 206.   DOI: 10.1093/toxsci/kfaa176