Environmental factors that cause cancer

April 25, 2018 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

Smog over cities. Polluted drinking water. Chemicals in food. Poor air quality. These are just a few exposures in the environment that may cause cancer. 

Any substance that causes cancer is known to be a carcinogen. If allowed to accumulate in the body for extended period of time, there is a greater likelihood your cells will become damaged, which results in the growth of cancer cells.

Some of these changes in our cells may be caused by genetics, while others may be caused by environmental factors. Environmental factors can include a wide range of exposures, such as:

  • Lifestyle factors (nutrition, tobacco use, physical activity)
  • Natural occurring exposures (ultraviolet light, radon gas, infectious agents)
  • Medical treatments (radiation and medicine)
  • Workplace and household exposures
  • Pollution

While not all chemicals and substances from the environment are harmful, exposure to some of these chemicals may damage our DNA and be dangerous to our health: 

  • Asbestos
  • Formaldehyde
  • Radon
  • Secondhand tobacco smoke
  • Soot
  • Wood dust

Coming into contact with a carcinogen does not mean you will get cancer; your risk of developing cancer depends on what you were exposed to and how often you were exposed to it.

In the United States, regulations have been put in place to reduce exposures to known carcinogens in the workplace. Outside of work, people can take steps to limit their exposure to known carcinogens, by: 

  • Testing your basement for radon, and doing radon remediation if levels are too high
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting sun exposure
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

The best way to avoid getting cancer is to adopt a healthy lifestyle and reduce exposure to harmful environment factors as much as possible. If you know you will be around chemicals, wear a mask. If you are going to be in the sun, use sunscreen. You have the power to reduce your cancer risk by living healthier. 

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

How to do your part to not get cancer

Detect cancer early with regular checkups and screenings

7 urban legends about cancer 

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