Carcinogens are those whose more or less prolonged and intense exposure significantly increases the chances of suffering from some type of cancer.
To date, 118 carcinogens are confirmed . These products have been shown to have a cause-effect relationship with the development of different types of cancers. Then there are many other substances whose relationship to malignant tumors is possible, but not entirely clear.
Red meat, mobile phones, naphthalene, talcum powder, gasoline, aloe vera, lead, steroids … These and many other products have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, but they are still many more studies are needed to confirm or deny it. For now, they are just guesses.
- We recommend you read: “The 22 most common myths about cancer, debunked”
For this reason, in today’s article we will only present those agents with sufficient bibliographic review to state outright that prolonged and / or intense exposure to them significantly increases the risk of developing cancer.
What is a carcinogen?
A carcinogen or carcinogen is any biological, physical or chemical substance that, when exposed to living tissue for more or less time, increases the probability that a malignant tumor will develop in that region of the body victim of exposure.
But why do they increase the risk of cancer? To answer this, we must remember what makes a cell go from being healthy to being a tumor.
Cancer consists of an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of the cells of our own body , which, due to mutations in their genetic material, lose the ability to regulate their cycles of division.
These mutations are “mistakes” that happen naturally when we renew cells. And is that under ideal conditions, the copies that our body makes of cells should be perfect copies, but no biological mechanism is perfect. It is normal that, although it does so with an extremely low frequency, our body “makes a mistake” when replicating the cells of our tissues and organs.
A small mistake in cell “reproduction” is not a problem at all. The dangerous thing comes when these small mutations accumulate throughout the generations and generations of our cells, since the cells of the body are constantly dividing. When the errors are too many, it is common for them to lose the ability to divide properly, at which point a tumor can develop.
But the thing to keep in mind is that, by simple math, the more we damage the cells in our body, the more times they will have to replicate to renew themselves and, as they go through more divisions, the more likely they will accumulate mutations that lead to cancer.
And that’s where carcinogens come in. And it is that these substances damage cells so much that they force them to constantly divide. And the more divisions, the more likely it is to get cancer.
Anyway, from what we have seen, it is also possible that people without exposure to these agents develop cancer, as it may be due to mere biological chance. But what is important to be clear about is that carcinogens increase the risk of cancer because they make cells more likely to develop mutations.
What is the impact of carcinogens?
The carcinogens that we will see below are usually the main cause behind the majority of cancer cases diagnosed each year in the world. And what is surprising is that, as we will see, exposure to them is usually totally optional. Except for some specific cases.
Therefore, while it is totally true that there are people who develop cancer without having been exposed to any of the main carcinogens, they are responsible for a large part of the 18 million cases of cancer that are declared in the world annually .
And it is that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men will develop some type of cancer throughout their lives , with lung, breast, colon, prostate and skin cancers being the most frequent.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide and, we repeat, its development is usually caused by prolonged exposure to some of the carcinogens that we will see below. Avoid coming into contact with them and the risk of suffering from this disease will be greatly reduced.
What are the main carcinogens?
Here are the biological, chemical and physical substances that have been shown to increase the risk of developing different types of cancer depending on the region of our body with which they come into contact.
Tobacco is surely the most harmful carcinogen in the world . According to the WHO, tobacco is responsible for 22% of cancer deaths each year, and it is behind 70% of lung cancer cases, the most common in the world with 2 million new cases annually worldwide. 1 million people die of cancer from tobacco.
Tobacco is one of the biggest known health threats, not only is it responsible for cancer, it also causes many other serious health problems. For this reason, tobacco is believed to kill half of its users. And considering that an estimated 1,100 million people worldwide smoke, you just need to do the math.
Alcohol is another of the most damaging carcinogens , so it is surprising that, like tobacco, it is a legal drug. Alcohol greatly increases the chances of developing many different types of cancer, with colorectal, liver, esophageal, and mouth cancers being the most increased risk.
All this makes alcohol responsible for 600,000 annual deaths linked to the development of cancer. In addition, it is a direct cause of many other diseases, thus becoming one of the main causes of death in the world.
Solar radiation, especially UVA rays , are physical carcinogens that greatly increase the risk of skin cancer. And it is that prolonged and unprotected exposure to sunlight is a direct cause of more than 90% of skin cancers that are diagnosed each year and, taking into account that there are more than 1 million new cases annually, radiation Sun is one of the most harmful carcinogens. An estimated 97,000 people die each year from cancers caused by the Sun.
4. Environmental pollution
Environmental pollution, which includes all the toxins present in water, air and soil caused by human activities , is one of the most harmful carcinogens in the world. Anyway, it must be taken into account that it is not as easy to establish clear data as in the other agents.
Be that as it may, it is estimated that environmental pollution is responsible for about 4% of the cancers that are diagnosed annually in the world and causes approximately 200,000 deaths due to the tumors it causes.
5. X-rays and Gamma
Ionizing radiation damages the genetic material of cells and can therefore cause cancer . But do not be afraid of X-rays, as the exposure time and the radiation levels used do not increase the risk of cancer. If we had multiple X-rays a day for years, maybe yes. But with the use that is done, there is no risk.
6. Hepatitis B and C
First carcinogen of biological origin on the list . The viruses that cause hepatitis B and C infect liver cells and greatly increase the risk of developing liver cancer. In fact, suffering from hepatitis is the main cause behind the more than 800,000 cases of liver cancer that are diagnosed annually in the world.
7. Processed meat
Due to the chemical processes it goes through to make it, processed meat has been shown to be a carcinogen . But again, peace of mind. With the amounts that a person consumes on average, the effect is not enough to cause cancer. Of course, you have to make a moderate consumption of all those cured, fermented, smoked meats, etc.
- We recommend you read: “Is red meat carcinogenic?”
8. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Another carcinogen of biological origin. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that greatly increases the risk of developing cervical cancer , one of the most common cancers in women. In fact, HPV infection is behind a large part of the 570,000 new cases of this cancer that are diagnosed annually in the world.
- We recommend you read: “Human Papillomavirus: causes, symptoms and treatment”
Aluminum is an extremely toxic chemical that has been shown to increase the risk of developing cancer, especially breast cancer. In any case, it must be made clear that most people are not exposed to the minimum amounts necessary for there to be a substantial increase in the probability of suffering from it. In fact, the greatest risk is working in or living in an aluminum factory.
10. Combustion of coal
Pollution in homes due to coal combustion is responsible for about 2% of deaths from lung cancer , and is that substances present in smoke can accumulate in the home and, being carcinogenic, increase the risk that the people who inhabit it develop cancer in the respiratory tract. Pollution in homes where air-sanitary conditions are not respected kills 97,000 people each year.