Is Breast Cancer Cluster Influenced by Environmental and Occupational Factors Among Hospital Nurses in Hungary?

Anna TOMPA, Jenő MAJOR, Mátyás G JAKAB

Department of Human Genotoxicology, National Institute of Chemical Safety, Budapest, Hungary


An unusual cluster of 8 breast cancer and 8 other malignant tumor cases (ovarian, uterus, lung, colon and brain tumors and malignant melanoma) developed in a period of 12 years among 98 nurses exposed to ethylene oxide (EtOx) for 5–15 years in a unit using gas sterilizer in a hospital of the archiepiscopal city of Eger, Hungary. EtOx concentration in air samples of the working area varied from 5 to 150 mg/m3. The question was, if there was any causal relationship between the elevated incidence of breast cancer and the EtOx exposure, the other possibility was, that this cluster appeared accidentally. EtOx is a human carcinogen, however, no increased breast cancer incidence in EtOx-exposed subjects was reported in the literature. We followed up for two consecutive years the 27 non cancer patients, EtOx-exposed nurses and 11 unexposed hospital controls with the aid of a multiple genotoxicology monitor including chromosomal aberration, sister-chromatide exchange, HPRT point mutation and DNA repair studies. The results were compared with data from 30 local historical controls, 48 historical controls from Budapest, 14 hospital controls and 9 EtOx exposed nurses from Budapest. Significantly high chromosome aberration yields (especially chromosome type exchanges) were alike detected in EtOx-exposed and the two other control groups in Eger. These results could not be interpreted as a consequence of EtOx exposure only, since in the EtOx-exposed group from Budapest, beside an increased total aberration frequency, the obtained exchange type aberration yields were as low as the historical controls. A plausible explanation can be the natural low dose radioactivity (222Rn) of the local tap-water due to a specific geological situation in Eger. The spontaneous breast cancer incidence in Hungary doubled in the last 10 years compared with the previous 20 years (1960–1980), especially in Eger. The appearence of the high breast cancer incidence in the hospital of Eger indicates the combined effect of EtOx and a more common local etiologic factor, such as the naturally radioactive tap-water. However, since the reported studies did not involve the investigation either of the genetic predisposition, or the effects of other possible environmental, occupational, and/or life style confounding factors, further studies (partly in progress) are necessary to clarify the importance of these factors. Pathology & Oncology Research, Vol 5, Nr 2, 117-121, 1999

Key words: ethylene oxide; exchange aberrations; genotoxicology monitoring; ionizing radiation; risk assessment

Received: Feb 10, 1999; accepted: Apr 20, 1999
Correspondence: Anna TOMPA, Department of Human Genotoxicology, National Institute of Chemical Safety, Budapest H-1450, Hungary; Tel: +36 1 215-2904, Fax: +36 1 215-2904; E-mail:

Click here to get the full-text version in PDF!