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Environmental Links to Cancer Types

Environmental Links to Specific Types of Cancer

  • Breast

    Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women. Some breast cancers are known to respond to hormone levels in a woman's bodies, and a variety of persistent chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, and dioxin have the potential to alter hormone activities in people.

  • Lung and bronchus

    Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Occupational exposure to certain metals, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and vinyl chloride have been associated with lung cancer. Certain types of air pollution have also been associated with this disease.

  • Bladder

    Occupational exposures to truck exhaust and compounds used in the textile and leather dye industries have been associated with bladder cancer.

  • Brain and other nervous system

    Occupational exposures to radiation and a variety of metallic, petrochemical, and organic compounds have been associated with brain cancer. There is some concern that children may be at risk when their parents are exposed to these substances, particularly during pregnancy.

  • Thyroid

    Increases in risk for thyroid cancer have been observed with exposure to ionizing radiation.

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

    Rates of this disease have increased dramatically over the last few decades, although no reasons for this increase have yet been found.

  • Leukemia

    Rates of various forms of leukemia are increasing among children, although the reasons for this are not known. Exposure to ionizing radiation, benzene, and some agricultural chemicals has been associated with increased risk.

  • Mesothelioma

    Mesothelioma is a rare cancer affecting the linings of internal organs, most often the lungs. It is most often caused by exposure to asbestos.

  • Skin

    Ultraviolet light (UV) radiation from prolonged sun exposure or tanning beds has been associated with this cancer. Exposures to environmental pollutants such as arsenic or dioxins may also contribute to increased risk.

  • Liver and bile duct

    Exposures to environmental pollutants such as solvents and persistent organic compounds may contribute to increased risk of these cancers.

  • Kidney and renal pelvis

    In addition to smoking and long-term use of certain pain medications, there is also concern that exposure to cadmium, arsenic, and disinfection byproducts in drinking water may increase risk for these cancers.

Specific Environmental Concerns

    • A metal that is naturally occurring but becomes available to humans through industrial processes and mining
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through contaminated water, foods, or medications
    • A chemical that is both synthetic (i.e. human-made) and from natural sources (i.e. emissions from volcanoes and forest fires)
    • Commonly used in industries to make other chemicals and products, and is a component of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through breathing contaminated air; gases from products (i.e. glues, paints, wax); or working in industries that make or use benzene
    • A synthetic insecticide that was banned for use in the US in 1972, but remains persistent in the environment
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through eating contaminated foods, breathing contaminated air, or drinking contaminated water near landfills and waste sites
    • A synthetic chemical that is a byproduct of incineration and chemical manufacturing
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through eating contaminated foods (responsible for 90% of intake); living near contaminated sites; or working in paper mills, incinerators, or occupations that produce dioxins as a byproduct
  • One of the first chemicals noted to be associated with cancer-benzidine-came to attention because of excess cases of bladder cancer seen among workers in these industries.

    • Energy in the form of particles or rays that is emitted from radioactive material, high-voltage equipment, and nuclear reactions
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through low levels in the environment; working as a pilot, flight attendant, astronaut, nuclear power plant worker, or x-ray technician; or receiving an x-ray exam
    • A group of chemical compounds that are metals, including lead, tungsten, and mercury
    • Exposure can occur through eating fish, from lead paint in older buildings, or through contaminated water passing through aging pipes
    • A group of nitrogen compounds; the greatest use of nitrates is as fertilizer
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through contaminated drinking water
    • A large group of chemical compounds that contain carbon, including benzene and DDT, and can be both synthetic and naturally forming
    • Exposure can occur in many ways including use of household chemicals, vehicle exhaust, and from pesticides
    • A group of chemical compounds that are made from petroleum or natural gas
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through use of gasoline pumps, spilled oil on pavement, and chemicals used at home or work
    • A synthetic chemical that was used prior to 1977 in electrical equipment; manufacturing was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 due to health concerns
    • Exposure can occur through: use of old fluorescent lights and appliances made 30 or more years ago; eating contaminated food; breathing air or drinking water near contaminated waste sites; or working to repair, maintain, clean-up, or dispose of products that contain PCBs (e.g. transformers, fluorescent lights, electrical devices
    • A group of chemicals formed from the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic materials like tobacco or charbroiled meat, emitted from volcanoes and forest fires
    • Exposure can occur through: working in industries such as coal-tar and asphalt production and incinerators; breathing air contaminated with cigarette smoke, wood smoke, or vehicle exhaust; eating grilled or contaminated foods; or drinking contaminated water
    • Trihaloamines (THM) form when chlorine used to disinfect water supplies react with organic and inorganic material in water to form disinfection by products (DBPs)
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through drinking water
    • A synthetic substance used in the production of certain plastics
    • Exposure most commonly occurs through breathing air that is contaminated from plastics industries, hazardous waste sites, and landfills; working in an industry that uses vinyl chloride; or drinking contaminated water
  • For more information on toxic substances, including those listed above, see the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website.