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Environ Health Perspect. 1996 March; 104(Suppl 1): 135–140.
PMCID: PMC1469562
Research Article

The melatonin hypothesis: electric power and breast cancer.


Breast cancer is a disease of modern life. As societies industrialize, risk increases, yet it is unclear which of the myriad changes coming with industrialization drives this increase. One important hallmark of modern life is the pervasive use of electric power. Electric power produces light at night (LAN) and electric and magnetic fields (EMF), either or both of which may alter pineal function and its primary hormone melatonin, thereby, perhaps increasing the risk of breast cancer. This hypothesis, stated a decade ago, is now receiving considerable experimental and epidemiological attention. The circumstantial case for the hypothesis has three aspects: light effects on melatonin, EMF effects on melatonin, and melatonin effects on breast cancer. The strongest of these aspects is the effects of light on melatonin. It is clear that the normal nocturnal melatonin rise in humans can be suppressed by light of sufficient intensity. The evidence for an effect of melatonin on breast cancer in experimental animals is strong, but the evidence in humans is scant and difficult to gather. The weakest aspect of the circumstantial case is EMF effects on melatonin. Whereas a half dozen independent laboratories have published findings of suppression in animals, there are inconsistencies, and there are no published data on humans. The direct evidence bearing on the hypothesis is sparse but provocative. Two laboratories have published data showing substantial increases in chemically induced breast cancer in rats by a weak AC (alternating current) magnetic field. The epidemiological evidence is very limited but has offered some support as well. An effect of electric power on breast cancer would have profound implications, and this possibility deserves continued investigation.

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Selected References

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