THE BLOG

What's Worse than Chemo? A Common Toxin that Renders It Less Effective

01/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I had breast cancer almost ten years ago, and I found chemotherapy to be more trying than I could have imagined. I prefer to leave it in the past, but recent reports brought it all back and triggered an alarming question: what if a common, everyday toxin made my chemo cocktail less effective?

The New York Times recently reported that Bisphenol-A, also known as BPA, is the culprit. And yet this week, the Washington Post wrote that the FDA has decided to sustain its do-nothing position on the toxin.

BPA is among the 50 most produced chemicals in the world. It is found in plastic water jugs labeled #7, baby bottles, canned food liners, soda bottles, and take-out containers from your local deli. I have catalogued the crimes of BPA on my blog before, but this is new information.

According to a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspective, scientists injected low levels of BPA -- similar to the levels most American adults carry in their blood every day -- into human breast cancer cells in test tubes. They found that the BPA acted like estrogen and actually induced proteins to protect cancer cells from the chemo.

Chemotherapy is a gross tool -- it kills most fast-growing cells in the body, not just the cancer cells. But at the same time, it is highly sensitive. My oncologist warned me not to take any vitamin or herbal supplements during the course of my treatment because they could interfere with the chemo's efficacy. And every breast cancer survivor knows we must avoid anything that acts like estrogen, since that hormone fuels breast cancer growth.

How could I have known that a toxin I was exposed to every day could have lowered the chemo's chances of working? The Times quoted a cancer specialist saying that BPA is "protecting existing cancer cells from dying in response to anti-cancer drugs, making chemotherapy significantly less effective."

Going through the insult of chemotherapy is bad enough. But discovering that it could be undermined by a hazard the FDA refuses to regulate makes it worse.

As late as October, the FDA continued to claim that it was safe to have BPA in America's food supply -- despite the fact that the agency's own panel of external scientists said the FDA's analysis was inadequate and ignored more than a dozen relevant studies. This week, the agency said it has no plans to change that position.

I count myself among the lucky ones: my cancer has not recurred. But I can not help but be outraged and concerned for the women whose treatment may not be as powerful as it should be. That's why NRDC will keep the pressure on the FDA until it bans BPA from our food supply.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.