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Long-Hidden Dangers?

New Jersey children play in a fog of DDT in 1948. The chemical was largely banned in the United States in 1972. (By George Silk -- Time & Life Pictures/getty Images)

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A new study has found a significant link between women's exposure to DDT as young girls and the development of breast cancer later in life.

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The results are something of a surprise, researchers said, because several previous studies have found no link between cancer and the insecticide, which was widely used during the 1950s and '60s but was banned in the United States in 1972.

The new work differs from all other studies, however, by focusing on the age at which women were exposed. Echoing the situation with some other breast cancer risks, such as radiation, it finds that DDT increases the risk of breast cancer in adulthood only if the exposure occurred at a young age, before the breasts were fully developed.

All told, girls who had the highest levels of the chemical in their blood during that crucial developmental period were five times more likely to get breast cancer years later than were girls who had the lowest levels. That fivefold increase is a bigger boost in risk than is now attributed to hormone replacement therapy or having a close relative with breast cancer.

Although there is nothing that women today can do about their DDT exposures decades ago, the results could influence an ongoing controversy about the extent to which the chemical should still be used around the world.

That question has haunted the World Health Organization because, despite its environmental and potential human health risks, DDT remains one of the most potent weapons against the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, a global scourge that kills about a million people every year, most of them children.

"This is a very important public health issue that calls for a balanced approach," said the leader of the new study, Barbara A. Cohn, director of Child Health and Development Studies, a nonprofit research initiative in Oakland, Calif.

Experts emphasized that the breast cancer findings must be considered preliminary until they can be replicated by others. But several who examined the study, published in the October issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, said the results looked valid.

There is a growing recognition that "what happens in early life is really important for what happens decades later," especially for breast and other tissues that undergo developmental changes in childhood, said Ezra Susser, chairman of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

But for the connection between DDT and breast cancer, Susser said, "No one has really been able to test it until now."

Perhaps no other chemical has earned such a full spectrum of both accolades and notoriety as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

First synthesized in the 19th century, the chemical came into widespread use to control mosquitoes and other insect pests after World War II. In the 1950s and '60s, when its popularity peaked, truck-sized foggers were repeatedly deployed in many U.S. neighborhoods, parks and summer camps, as well as on farms.


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