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Your Environment. Your Health.

Silent Spring Institute

Linking Breast Cancer Advocacy & Environmental Justice

NIEHS Grant: 5R25ES13258-4

Julia Brody

Project Description:

This project linked breast cancer and environmental justice advocacy through a variety of approaches conducted by Silent Spring Institute, a community-based breast cancer research organization; Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an environmental justice organization; and partners from Brown University and the University of California, Berkeley. The collaborators conducted home environmental exposure assessments, collecting air and dust samples to assess indoor levels of pollutants, especially endocrine disruptors (EDCs) that are potentially linked to breast cancer, reproductive and neurological development, and other health outcomes. The project added measurements of pollutants from nearby industry and transportation in response to community concerns. Data collection, analysis, community education, and organizational linkages occurred in two locations - Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a region of unexplained high breast cancer incidence that has been the focus of prior work of Silent Spring Institute, and a site in Richmond, California, that is largely composed of people of color and impacted by industrial facilities. The research team shared study results both as aggregate information presented through community meetings, news media, and online, and as individual report-back information to study participants. Using both report-back approaches, this study sought to maximize understanding of exposure data and its limitations, and to address the ethical issues of ensuring community and individual autonomy, the right to know, and ultimately the right to act on scientific information by reducing exposures.

This project ran from 2004 to 2009.


At a community meeting, Dr. Rachel Morello-Frosch explained study results in English and Spanish, showing that outdoor air pollution builds up inside homes in an EJ neighborhood. (Photo by: Julia Brody )
  • Prior to beginning data collection, the partners obtained institutional review board (IRB) coverage for all members in the team from the Brown University IRB. Developing this agreement represents a significant advance in support from an academic institution for community-based participatory research (CBPR), particularly given that a community-based organization was the PI for the project. Presentations at professional conferences and a journal article highlighted this innovative agreement.
  • This project had high visibility in the local and national news media. CBE representatives were featured in a National Geographic (Oct 2006) article on personal exposure. The project team was covered by Boston and Cape Cod National Public Radio stations, the Cape Cod Times, The Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times (Oct 2008) and other local newspapers, Consumer Reports (March 2011), Ms. Magazine (Oct 2006), The Green Guide, WebMD, The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Forbes, and other outlets. Numerous, well-attended community meetings were held in both research locations to conduct additional outreach. Presentations at the American Public Health Association and the American Sociological Association annual meetings in 2006 highlighted links between breast cancer advocacy and environmental justice. In April 2007, a Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition conference on breast cancer and African-American women took place.
  • The PI published an analytic essay on reporting individual monitoring results to study participants in 2008. Examples of report-back materials are accessible on the Silent Spring Institute website(1MB) . The research team also interviewed researchers involved in personal exposure studies about their report-back practices and views, and a manuscript of those interviews has been published. In addition, the research team interviewed study participants in California and Massachusetts who received their own results, and two peer-reviewed articles were published about participants’ experiences. Learning about their household exposure results led study participants to expand their conceptions of health-related pollution to include toxics from consumer products ( article summary  ).
  • For two Cape Cod homes that had elevated PCBs, the researchers identified a commercial product that they hypothesized may be the source and developed a sampling plan to test this hypothesis ( PCB summary  ).
  • The study was the first to show that levels of thyroid-disrupting flame retardants (PBDEs) were much higher in California homes than elsewhere, likely due to the state’s stringent furniture flammability standard ( PBDE summary  ).
  • In the California location, the research team discovered that there were significant correlations between outdoor and indoor levels of pollutants, which demonstrate that outdoor air pollution is an important determinant of indoor exposures ( summary  ). There were very few differences in the EDC levels in the data collected at the two California sites (one urban, fence-line community and one rural community). This illustrates that consumer products contribute substantially to indoor air quality and indicates the need for remedies, such as the efforts of breast cancer organizations to secure proactive chemical policies and launch consumer campaigns to reduce the use of EDCs.
  • During the California study, the local oil refinery proposed permit changes that would potentially increase harmful pollutant emissions. CBE used the data collected in this study to urge local government to reconsider the change. Study participants used their individual data and aggregate results in their testimony, vividly demonstrating how the study helped increase community engagement in environmental justice issues. At community meetings, discussions spontaneously turned to ways to use results to negotiate health protections from the oil company.
  • This project is significant because it is the most comprehensive effort to date to report to individuals on multiple pollutants in their homes. It is one of very few research projects to report individual results on pollutants for which health standards have not yet been established. Given the proliferation of environmental sampling and biomonitoring research efforts, developing and testing best practices for report-back is an important contribution. This project also represents the first sustained effort to link breast cancer and environmental justice constituencies, an effort that will bring new resources and perspectives to both groups. In addition, the project generated new data on exposure to EDCs, a class of pollutants of increasing concern for multiple health outcomes.
  • The project team held a symposium   to discuss the best way to inform study participants of personal results at the 2011 Annual Meeting of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
  • The project team has been awarded additional funding to continue this research.


This collaboration sought to determine and reduce exposure to household pollutant levels, to report environmental monitoring data to individuals and communities, to develop guidance for report-back by others, and to link breast cancer and environmental justice advocacy through community-based outreach.


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