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Environmental Causes of Cancer and How You Can Avoid Them

environmental causes of cancer

Recently, a news report focused on “cancer hot spots” in Florida, lending to current research on how the environment can affect cancer risk. Here are some known environmental causes of cancer and how you can avoid them.


The state of Florida is home to Fun, Sun and Disney World – but it also has the sixth highest number of hazardous waste sites. These “Superfund” sites are associated with an increasing number of cancer cases in the Sunshine State. Florida actually has been projected to have the second largest number of new cancer cases in the United States.

For a little bit of background, President Jimmy Carter, in December of 1980, signed into law the “Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act” known informally as Superfund. This law provided the US Environmental Protection Agency the legal authority to conduct clean-up efforts for uncontrolled hazardous waste sites and spills.

Soil and water contamination, in addition to outdoor air pollution, are known environmental factors that contribute to cancer risk. Those who live near these sites appear to have an increased risk for gastrointestinal, esophageal, colon, and lung cancers. There is also an increased incidence of childhood cancers in these areas, but a cause-and-effect link remains unclear if pollution directly contributes to these cases.

Most of Florida’s seventy-seven Superfund sites are located near water. Florida is not only surrounded by water on three sides, but also has many swamps and lakes located internally to the state. The eight “Hot Spot” counties are St. Lucie, Osceola, Citrus, Sumter, Herando, Marion, Sarasota and Glades counties.

What can you do to reduce your risk of developing cancer if you live in one of these areas?

The National Cancer Institute has published a list of environmental factors that are known carcinogens. Understanding these and how to avoid them could be beneficial to your health:

• Arsenic – this is a naturally occurring substance found in air, water and soil. It can also be released into the environment by certain agricultural and industrial processes, such as mining and metal smelting. In the past, people were exposed to arsenic through contact with pesticides. Today, people in the general population may be exposed through contaminated drinking water. To avoid exposure, ensure that your water supply is safe.

• Benzene – this colorless or light-yellow liquid chemical is used primarily as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. It is also a natural component of crude oil. People are exposed by breathing contaminated air. Most people are exposed to benzene through tobacco smoke, but you should also be careful to avoid gasoline fumes while at the gas station.

• Beryllium – this is a metal used in high-technology consumer and commercial products. The general public is not likely to be exposed, but workers who deal with airborne particles during manufacturing could be at an increased risk of lung cancer.

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• 1,3-Butadiene – This colorless gas is used to produce synthetic rubber products such as tires. The public is exposed through automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke, and polluted air and water near manufacturing facilities. There is an increased risk of leukemia associated with 1,3-butadiene.

• Hexavalent Chromium Compounds – these compounds are widely used in manufacturing. It can also be found in air, water, and soil. Industrial workers are at greatest risk, due to inhalation of dust and fumes.

• Lead – this metal enters the environment through industry, including mining and coal production. It may also be found in water. In addition to being a potential carcinogen, it affects red blood cells, especially in children.

• Pesticides – as a general category, these could potentially be potential carcinogens – not only directly through the food that we eat, but also by contaminating the soil and water surrounding the crops.

• Polybrominated diphenylethers or PBDEs – these are used as flame retardants in furniture and mattresses. Exposure is through inhalation or dermal (skin) contact, plus these are highly persistent in the environment per the Physicians for Social Responsibility.

• Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) – these result from wood and fuel combustion, found in coal tar and coal tar pitch (used in roofing), and can be a water and air contaminant.

• Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB’s) – these tasteless, odorless compounds were used in manufacturing until 1979, but today can still be released from poorly maintained hazardous waste sites. They do not easily breakdown so they remain for a long time in the air, water and soil. We can be exposed in several ways, including eating contaminated fish.

While this is not a complete list of environmental contaminants, it does highlight that many chemicals are around us every day that could increase our risk for cancer. Taking time to know what chemicals are used in your areas can help you identify your greatest risk factors.

Kirpich, A et al. Superfund Locations and Potential Associations with Cancer Incidence in Florida. Statistics and Public Policy, Volume 4, 2017. Published online.
Cogliano, V et al. Preventable Exposures Associated with Human Cancers. J National Cancer Inst 2011; 103:1827-1839
Martinez, A et al. Release of Airborne Polychlorinated Biphenyls from New Bedford Harbor Results in Elevated Concentrations in the Surrounding Air. Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 2017

Additional Resources:
National Cancer Institute
US Geological Survey, US Department of the Interior
International Agency for Research on Cancer
Physicians for Social Responsibility – Examples of Environmental Carcinogens

Photo Credit: By Tdewing (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons