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Eight New Carcinogens Named, Are You at Risk?


With the naming of eight new cancer-causing substances to the 12th Report on Carcinogens prepared for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), many people may be wondering, “Am I at risk for cancer?” Several of the agents are relatively common, and recognizing all of them is important for everyone’s health.

Carcinogens are in some everyday products

The addition of two new known and six anticipated human carcinogens to the Report “provides important information on substances that pose a cancer risk,” according to Linda Birnbaum, PhD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). The report was prepared by the NTP.

Among the additions is formaldehyde, which moved up from the category of “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” to “known human carcinogen.” The types of cancer associated with high levels of exposure to formaldehyde are nasopharyngeal, sinonasal, and myeloid leukemia.

Formaldehyde is colorless but has a strong chemical smell. The agent is commonly used to make resins for items around the house, such as paper product coatings, synthetic fibers, textile finishes, and composite wood products, as well as some hair straightening products. You will also find formaldehyde in medical laboratories and mortuaries.

A second substance, called aristolochic acids, has been associated with high rates of bladder or upper urinary tract cancer among individuals who already have kidney or renal disease. One decade ago (2001), the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about taking botanical products that contain aristolochic acids, but such items are still available on the Internet and overseas.

Among the six substances named as anticipated to be carcinogenic to humans, captafol has caused tumors in experimental animals. This fungicide was banned in the United States in 1999, but exposure from the past can still affect a person’s health.

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Cobalt-tungsten carbide, which is used to make certain tools, dies, and wear-resistant products for oil and gas drilling, mining, and other industries, has shown some evidence of causing lung cancer among workers who use the substance in hard metal manufacturing.

A substance called o-nitrotoluene has been shown to cause tumor in animals. –Nitrotoluene is used for preparing certain dyes for cotton, wool, silk, leather, and paper, as well as in preparing pesticides, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, and rubber chemicals. Most exposure among people occurs among those who work with the substance, although it has also been found in air and water near military training facilities.

Some inhalable glass wool fibers are anticipated to be carcinogenic because they can infiltrate and remain in the lungs for a prolonged time. General purpose glass wool fibers are largely used in home and building insulation and are less likely to cause cancer than are premium, special purpose fibers, which are used less often.

Riddelliine is a substance found in certain plants in the daisy family. Also known as ragwort and groundsel, at least 13 species have been found in herbal medicines and even some foods. Studies show riddelliine can cause cancer of the blood vessels, leukemia, liver cancer, and lung tumors in laboratory animals.

The synthetic chemical styrene has been named as an anticipated carcinogen in people based on animal and human cancer studies. The most significant exposure to styrene among people is cigarette smoking, although workers employed in the manufacture of rubber, plastic, insulation, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, carpet backing, and fiberglass are also at risk of increased exposure.

According to John Bucher, PhD, associate director of the NTP, the Report and the information concerning the eight new carcinogens “underscores the critical connection between our nation’s health and what’s in our environment.” The 12th Report on Carcinogens now includes 240 items.