Chemical pollutants in the environment could be one driver behind the soaring rates of breast cancer, a report has claimed.

Changes in lifestyle have been blamed for an 81 per cent increase in the incidence of the disease in Britain since the early 1970s but the role of chemicals has been neglected, it says.

In the report for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), Andreas Kortenkamp, from London University's School of Pharmacy, says exposure to pollutants used in the manufacture of products from plastics to cosmetics has a known "endocrine disrupting" effect.

The chemicals mimic the female sex-hormone oestrogen, and have been blamed for "feminised" fish and frogs, as well as declining sperm counts in men, and may also be helping to trigger breast cancer. The claim was immediately dismissed by Cancer Research UK who said the report contained "no new findings" and did not review all the evidence available.

The WWF, which campaigns against hormone-disrupting chemicals, has been pressing the European Union to finalise new legislation called REACH, which is designed to protect people and the environment from man-made chemicals in the face of resistance from the industry.

In the WWF report, Dr Kortenkamp points out that less than half of new breast cancer cases can be explained solely by lifestyle factors and genetics.

He highlights two key ways that oestrogenic chemicals may be contributing to breast cancer.

One is the "cocktail effect" of exposure to several different oestrogen-mimicking chemicals. The other is exposure to the chemicals during critical periods, such as when baby girls are in the womb, or at puberty. He said: "To prove or dismiss a link with breast cancer, exposure to chemicals must be recorded many years before the cancer becomes manifest.

"Measuring chemicals at a time when the disease is diagnosed will miss important features and will provide a warped picture."

The paper calls for strong legislation to control endocrine disrupters.

Dr Kortenkamp said a recent Spanish study had demonstrated an association between breast cancer risk and oestrogen-mimicking chemicals.

"This is the first evidence that chemicals in our environment, with oestrogenic properties that are 'accidental', and not just natural hormones or pharmaceutical oestrogens, may contribute to the development of breast cancer," he said.

Josephine Querido, information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: " This report does not present any new findings and does not review all of the evidence available.

"There is considerable public concern about whether hormone-disrupting chemicals - both in the environment and in household goods - affect breast cancer risk.

"But it has not been proven conclusively that they do, and a number of studies have contradicted the suggestion.

"Compared with the levels of natural oestrogen circulating in a woman's blood, the levels of these chemicals are very small indeed. The increase in breast cancer rates in the last few decades has been linked to lifestyle changes. These include the trend for women to have fewer children later in life, increased bodyweight in post menopausal women, the use of hormone treatments like HRT and the Pill and increasing alcohol consumption."

Radical surgery for woman with 90% cancer risk

A woman is to undergo a double mastectomy after being told she has a 90 per cent chance of developing breast cancer.

Sarah-Jane Howe's mother and aunt died of the disease. The 33-year-old, who has three children, chose to have surgery because she had watched them suffering. Despite adopting a healthy lifestyle the former beauty queen from Wiltshire was told she was at risk. She plans to undergo breast reconstruction after the surgery early next month, which will reduce her chances of developing breast cancer to 5 per cent. She said: "I saw my mum go through a hell of a lot of suffering and I couldn't stand to put my children through that pain."

Jonathan Brown