Academic Commons

Theses Doctoral

Exposure to Phthalates during Critical Windows of Susceptibility and Breast Tissue Composition: Implications for Breast Cancer Risk

Oskar, Sabine

Secular trends in breast cancer incidence in younger women suggest environmental factors, like exposure to environmental chemicals, may play a role in rising incidence. One of the strongest risk factors for developing breast cancer, next to family history, is high mammographic breast density, which is defined as the proportion of fibroglandular breast tissue relative to fat as seen on a mammogram. Phthalates, a ubiquitous endocrine disrupting chemical, have the potential to interfere with endogenous hormones like estrogen and androgens. There is growing evidence from animal and epidemiologic studies indicating distinct periods of heightened susceptibility to endocrine disrupting chemicals throughout the life course, particularly during critical windows of breast development. Exposure to hormonally active environmental chemicals like phthalates may be a modifiable risk factor for breast cancer, therefore reducing or eliminating exposure could have substantial public health benefits.

The overarching goal of this dissertation was to assess the relationship between exposure to phthalates during two critical windows of susceptibility, the prenatal and pregnancy periods, and its effect on breast tissue composition in adolescence and adulthood. First, a comprehensive review of epidemiologic studies summarized the body of evidence for the association between phthalate exposure and intermediate markers known to be in the causal pathway of breast cancer risk (age at breast development, menarche, and breast tissue composition). This systematic review of the literature aimed to identify potential patterns of evidence by outcome and timing of exposure. Evidence from this review suggested that phthalate exposure during the prenatal and childhood periods may play a role in altering menarche. Findings for phthalate exposure and age at breast development were inconclusive. There was a considerable lack of epidemiologic data on phthalate exposure and breast tissue composition throughout the life course. Based on one study, there is a potential association between phthalate exposure during pre-puberty and altered breast tissue density in adolescent girls.

No study assessed the relationship between phthalate exposure during the prenatal or pregnancy period and subsequent breast tissue composition. Second, an examination for the association between prenatal phthalate exposure and breast tissue composition measured in adolescence (Chapter 3) and the association between phthalate exposure during pregnancy and breast tissue composition measured during or after the postpartum transient period (Chapter 4) aimed to address this major gap identified from the comprehensive review. The empirical chapters of this dissertation used data from an ongoing longitudinal birth cohort study of mothers and their children conducted by the New York City Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health and the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Project (CCCEH-BCERP). The CCCEH-BCERP study cohort has prospective data on nine phthalate metabolite concentrations measured during the third trimester of pregnancy and breast tissue composition measured in a subsample of mother-daughter dyads.

Notably, we used novel non-invasive methods (optical breast spectroscopy) in this younger cohort of mothers and daughters to objectively measure specific components of the bulk breast composition before mammography screening age. There was significant evidence of altered breast tissue composition in both mothers and daughters. For daughters (n=127, mean age 15.2 ± 1.9 years), prenatal exposures to select low molecular weight (LMW) and high molecular weight (HMW) phthalate metabolites altered overall breast density in opposing directions, which appears to be driven by significant altered percent breast water. There was a significant association between higher prenatal levels of a LMW phthalate metabolite (monobutyl phthalate) and lower levels of overall breast density (adjusted β = -0.32; 95% CI: -0.51, -0.13) and significant association between sum of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (∑DEHP), a HMW phthalate metabolite, and higher levels of overall breast density in girls (adjusted β = 0.20; 95% CI: 0.05, 0.34). For mothers (n=133, mean age 41 ± 5.3 years at follow-up), there was a significant association between two LMW phthalate metabolites and lower levels of percent breast collagen. Additionally, there was a significant inverse relationship between levels of mono-(3-carboxypropyl), a HMW phthalate metabolite, and percent total hemoglobin of the breast (adjusted β =-0.03; 95% CI: -0.06, 0.00, p=0.05). Overall, this dissertation increased our understanding of the impact that exposure to phthalates during critical windows of susceptibility may have on specific components of the breast. Reducing exposure to both HMW and LMW phthalates may have an impact in reducing breast cancer risk, particularly for girls prenatally exposed, as there was stronger evidence of higher overall breast density and percent water from exposure to select HMW phthalates. Future prospective studies should confirm these results as findings might provide an opportunity for modifying potential breast cancer risk.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2023-06-04.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
McDonald, Jasmine A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 16, 2021