Skip to main content Skip to header navigation

Cancer and environmental carcinogens

Carcinogens are present in and around your home and workplace, and are often related to lifestyle. Being aware of and reducing your exposure to carcinogens can reduce your risk of developing cancer.

What are environmental carcinogens?

Cancer is caused by mutations in a cell’s DNA. Though some of these mutations may be inherited from your parents, some factors in your environment can cause changes in your cell’s DNA, too.

These potential cancer-causers can be:

  • Related to lifestyle (smoking, poor diet, being sedentary)
  • Naturally occurring substances (ultraviolet rays, infectious agents, radon)
  • Medical treatments (hormone replacement, immune-suppressing treatments)
  • Chemicals in the home and workplace
  • Pollution.

Being exposed to carcinogens doesn’t guarantee that you will get cancer; however, substances labeled as carcinogens have varying levels of cancer-causing potential. Additionally, factors such as genetic makeup, as well as length and intensity of carcinogenic exposure, affect your risk of developing cancer.

Types of environmental carcinogens

Infectious agents

Research indicates that 15 to 20 percent of worldwide cancer cases are related to infections caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites. Some infections can cause inflammation, which may suppress a person’s immune system or directly affect a person’s DNA. Bacteria such as H. pylori (implicated in a greater risk for stomach cancer) and viruses such as HPV (linked to cervical cancer) can put you at risk for developing cancer.


Though most forms of radiation have not been linked to cancer, there is evidence that certain types of radiation, such as ionizing and ultraviolet, can damage your DNA and cause cancer. Ionization radiation comes from x-rays, gamma rays and radioactive materials. Ultraviolet radiation comes primarily from the sun.


Radon, a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas, is among the best studied of environmental carcinogens. It is found in soil and rock, outdoors and indoors, with the highest levels in basements, where radon leaks through cracks or gaps in floors or walls. High levels of radon have been linked to lung cancer. These high levels can occur when radon becomes concentrated in an area and cannot dissipate.

Diesel exhaust

Diesel exhaust, a contributor to air pollution, has been classified as an environmental carcinogen and is most associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. It is given off by trucks, buses, trains, construction and farm equipment, generators, ships and vehicles with diesel engines. Exhaust from these engines, made up of soot and gases, exists on roadways as well as in cities, farms and other workplaces. The people with the highest exposure are at the greatest risk of developing cancer.

Secondhand smoke

Also known as passive smoke, secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, with more than 60 of these compounds known or suspected to cause cancer. Secondhand smoke is most dangerous in enclosed places, such as your home, car, workplace and public buildings where smoking indoors is allowed. Of course, you can also be exposed to secondhand smoke outdoors if you are near smokers.


A number of chemicals are considered carcinogenic. Benzene, present in gasoline, auto exhaust, cigarettes, industrial processes and some consumer goods, has been linked to leukemia. Asbestos, found in older buildings, increases the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Tetrachlorethylene, a substance used in dry cleaning, has been linked to several cancers (experts suggest airing out your clothes after you bring them home). Arsenic, a well known poison, is found in contaminated water and food, particularly from agricultural or industrial areas that have used arsenic in operations.

Consumer products

Antiperspirants, talcum powder, hair dyes, cosmetics as well as food products containing aspartame, bovine growth hormone and dyes have been caught in controversy about their cancer-causing potential. Some studies do suggest that certain types of these products may increase the risk of developing cancer, but more research is being conducted to determine their carcinogenic levels. The best advice: Limit your exposure to suspect products until more evidence is available.

Many other environmental substances are potentially carcinogenic and under study to determine their level of cancer-causing potential. Check with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and American Cancer Society for more information.

Source: American Cancer Society

More cancer information

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.