Cancer and Toxic Chemicals
Cancer is the second leading cause
of death in the United States; it accounts for 1 in 4 deaths in the US and
claims more than 1,500 lives a day. There are over 100 different types of
cancer and there are many different factors that affect the susceptibility to
cancer such as family history, occupation, living conditions, and socioeconomic
Cancer is a broad term that refers
to a range of complex diseases affecting various organs in the human body. Some
of the most frequently diagnosed cancers include lung, breast, prostate, and
- Lung cancer leads to the most number of deaths
in both men and women, accounting for about 30% of all cancer deaths.
- Breast cancer is the second leading cause of
cancer death in women, after lung cancer; it is also the second most frequently
diagnosed cancer in women, after skin cancers. In the US, breast cancer results
in the highest mortality rates of any cancer in women between the ages of 20
- Prostate cancer is the most frequently diagnosed
cancer in men, killing 40,000 each year.
- Brain cancer is the leading cause of cancer
death in children under the age of 20 and the third leading cause of death in
young adults ages 20-39.
In addition to the pain and
suffering caused by the disease, cancer places an enormous economic burden on
our society. In 2010, cancer was estimated by the National Institutes of Health
to cost $102.8 billion in medical costs, $20.9 billion in loss of productivity
due to illness, and $140.1 billion in loss of productivity due to premature
death, for a grand total of $263.8 billion.
Yet much of these costs could be
avoided, because many cancers are preventable. In May of 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel reported to President Obama that “the true
burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” Exposure
to environmental carcinogens (chemicals or substances that can lead to the
development of cancer) can occur in the workplace and in the home, as well as through
consumer products, medical treatments, and lifestyle choices. It has long been
known that exposure to high levels of certain chemicals, such as those in some
occupational settings, can cause cancer. There is now growing scientific
evidence that exposure to lower levels of chemicals in the general environment
is contributing to society’s cancer burden.
Environmental factors including
tobacco smoke, nutrition, physical activity, and exposure to environmental
carcinogens are estimated to be responsible for 75-80% of cancer diagnosis and
death in the US. About 6%of cancer deaths per year -- 34,000 deaths annually --
are directly linked to occupational and environmental exposures to known, specific
carcinogens. The potential of environmental carcinogens to interact with
genetic and lifestyle factors, as well as each other, in the development of
cancer, is not well-understood. Nor are chemicals in the environment
exhaustively tested as to their carcinogenicity. Therefore the cancer burden
caused by exposures to environmental carcinogens may be even larger.
biomonitoring studies show that many environmental contaminants, including known
and potential carcinogens, are finding their way into people’s bodies. The
sources of these contaminants are wide-ranging:
- Pesticides: conventional pesticides used in
agriculture, industry, home, and garden, as well as chlorine and other
disinfectants, and wood preservatives.
- Industrial chemicals, wastes, and waste
byproducts from mining facilities, smelting operations, chemical
manufacturing and processing plants, petrochemical plants, and medical and
municipal waste facilities. Such facilities release billions of pounds of
chemicals into the environment every year.
- Chemicals in consumer products, including
building materials, furniture, and food packaging materials, and cosmetics.
- Pollution from coal-fired
power plants, automobile
exhaust, and other sources.
The following are examples of common
environmental chemicals linked to cancer. Some are listed as known carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part
of the World Health Organization, or by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Others are probable or possible carcinogens. Because something has been
classified as a carcinogen does not mean that every instance of exposure to
that substance will result in the development of cancer. By the same token, a
listing of “probable” or “possible” carcinogenicity does not mean we have
exhausted study on that substance. It means the substance is not yet
sufficiently studied. Such substances may, with further study, turn out to be
There are hundreds of other substances definitively linked to cancer in people.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Chromium Hexavalent compounds
Polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs)
Polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
11th Report on Carcinogens. The National Toxicology Program, US Department of
Health and Human Services.
Cancer Causes and Risk Factors.
National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
Cancer Facts and Figures 2010. American Cancer Society
Cancer Working Group.
The Collaborative on Health and the Environment.
Chemicals Healthy Families.
IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. International Agency for Research on Cancer,
World Health Organization.
Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What we can do now. Annual report 2008-2009.
President’s Cancer Panel, 2010.
State of the Evidence: The connection between breast cancer and the environment.
Janet Gray, PhD, 2010. The Breast Cancer Fund.
Page Updated October 9, 2013