Take a look at the World Health Organization’s statistics on leading causes of death worldwide. It will tell you that the more advanced a country is, the greater your chances of dying of cancer.
Advancements in medicine and healthcare have brought down infectious diseases which used to be the mass killers of past. But various types of cancers have filled in the slots. Lung and respiratory tract cancers are now the second biggest killer in the United States right after heart disease.
Aging population in developed countries, thanks to the increase in average life expectancy, can skew the statistics, but cancers in younger people are also increasing at an alarming rate. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the environmental and dietary factors that increase our cancer risk.
Here’s a list of things that could put you at more risk of getting cancer based on scientific studies. It is not meant to scare you, however, being aware of the risk factors is imperative if you wish to do all you can to preserve your health.
1. Air fresheners
Air fresheners ensure that we come home to a sweet-smelling house and car. They have become essential homecare products and have replaced good old cleaning routines and traditional potpourris and pomanders made of lavender blooms, spices and citrus fruits.
No one wants a smelly car or home, but when we think about it, do these easy-to-use air fresheners improve the quality of the air in any way? They are just masking the foul odors, giving us a false sense of sanitation.
How do they do that? Air fresheners contain some chemical substances that assault the olfactory receptors in our nostrils, rendering them incapable of recognizing other smells. Not only that, they add a bunch of other harmful chemicals into our homes, deteriorating the air quality further.
Look at some of the common chemicals found in air fresheners:
Acetaldehyde – This chemical with a deceptively innocuous fruity odor is a knowncarcinogen.
Benzaldehyde – Classified by United States Environmental Protection Agency as a hazardous substance, this chemical smells of almond oil.
1,3-Dichloro-2-propanol – A strong-smelling chemical known to cause kidney and liver cancers.
1,4-Dichlorobenzene – Another carcinogen with a strong smell that can mask other odors by numbing our sensory receptors.
Methyl pyrrolidone – featured on the list of Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity according to the California Proposition 65.
Add to these some petroleum-based solvents and fragrances, and we have a potent concoction of cancer- causing substances, not to mention their role in causing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
2. Alcoholic beverages
If you think alcohol consumption in moderate quantities is good for cardiovascular health, it has now been shown to increase your cancer risk. According to a research study conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, alcohol was responsible for over 20,000 deaths due to cancer in 2009.
The results published in the American Journal of Public Health (April 2013) shows that even a drink or two a day can increase the risk of cancers of esophagus, colon, rectum and breast.
Alcohol promotes the production of stomach acids that can damage the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. The effect is worse in people who already have problems like peptic ulcer. Ethanol in the alcoholic beverages gets converted to acetaldehyde, which causes DNA damage that triggers cancer. It also increases estrogen production and accelerates the growth of liver cells. These could be some of the reasons for the carcinogenic effect of alcohol.
3. Birth control
Birth control pills have been implicated in increased risk of breast cancer as well as cancers of the cervix and liver. But these findings were tempered by their effect of reducing the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers. But birth control as a whole – as in not having children at all – also is a risk factor for breast cancer.
It would seem that female bodies are hard-wired for the biological processes of childbearing and breastfeeding. Having multiple pregnancies and childbirths, especially before the age of thirty, followed by breast feeding for a year or more significantly reduce breast cancer risks. It has to do with not only hormones but the development of breast tissue into a mature form that is more resistant to cancerous changes.
Candles have lighted people’s homes for centuries since they were first made by Romans and Egyptians. In this age of electric lights, candles are used mainly as accents for their soft glow and romantic feel. If candles of old were fashioned from nut fats, animal fats and beeswax, until the much neater paraffin wax developed from petroleum became popular in the 1850s. This made candle making easy, and candles cheap.
But it seems this pristine, blue-tinted white wax is not all that neat if recent studies are anything to go by. The fumes released as paraffin wax burns contain carcinogens such as toluene, aldehydes, ketones and other fossil fuel components which can build up inside homes. An occasional candle-lit dinner may not cause cancer, but a regular habit of burning candles as part of a relaxing evening routine may.
Shield your candle flames from draughts by all means, but ensure good ventilation. Small, enclosed spaces like bathrooms are no place for burning candles.
5. Car fumes
The higher incidence of lung cancer in miners exposed to diesel fumes has made International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issue a warning against the use of this fuel. Diesel engine exhausts have higher amounts of particulate matter known to cause asthma and lung cancer. But the truth is that not just diesel fumes, but all kinds of fossil fuel fumes contain several known carcinogens.
Diesel and petrol (gasoline), as well as airplane fuel, are derived from petroleum through a distillation process, but they are separated from crude oil at different temperatures. The main difference lies in their combustion inside the engines. Apart from airborne particulate matter, they all release toxic carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons including benzene.
Benzene is a known carcinogen that damages the bone marrow where blood cells are produced. Chronic exposure to this chemical is implicated in several types of blood cancers.
Cosmetics come under the purview of FDA, but they are not as strictly regulated as drugs. Since they are mainly applied externally to enhance appearance, their use is considered incidental and temporary. If at all any testing is done on their safety, it is mainly to test for pain, burning sensation, changes in skin color and other localized allergic reactions.
It may seem that you can get rid of all the ingredients in cosmetics by simply washing them off at the end of the day. But the appearance of certain sunscreen chemicals like benzophenone-3 in urine several days after use, points to the fact that they are not only absorbed, but stored in the body as well.
Hair dyes have been linked to cancer risks, but many other everyday cosmetics contain the carcinogens like formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and 1,4-dioxane. Fragrances used in these products are particularly suspicious because their manufacturers do not even share their formula with the cosmetic product companies. Even those who claim to be natural or organic may not be all that safe.
Granite is a hardwearing stone that looks great when used for flooring, wall cladding or as countertops. When polished to a mirror finish, it is easy to clean and less likely to stain, compared to marble. These factors have made it popular in many modern kitchens. But granite is known to emit radon, a radioactive gas which is believed to increase risk of cancer. It is a decay product of radium formed when the uranium and thorium in bedrocks decay.
Granites come from many countries, and are available in many colors. Their radioactivity is also just as varied. Radon gas is colorless and odorless, which makes it impossible to detect with our senses. What makes it all the more dangerous is its high density.
When emitted by the granite inside homes, it remains close to the ground and accumulates, steadily releasing radioactive daughter elements and ionizing radiation. According to EPA, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
Testing for radon gas is the only way to detect its presence. Reducing granite use and providing active ventilation in the areas it is used may help cut down the risk of exposure.
Brushing our teeth with a dollop of toothpaste twice a day or more is necessary for oral health; or so we have been told. But there’s a studied silence regarding the safety and efficacy of the ingredients in our toothpaste.
Take the case of fluoride. This substance in toothpaste is supposed to reduce cavities, but people who have high amounts of fluoride in their drinking water have been known to develop fluorosis, a degenerative condition affecting teeth and bones.
Fluoride’s possible link to a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma is occasionally brought into media attention, only to be shot down with the justification that conclusive evidence is lacking. Fluoride is added to drinking water supplies in several parts of the US despite an outcry against it, and fluoride toothpastes continue to be recommended.
Another cancer-causing agent in toothpaste is triclosan, an antibiotic substance added to ensure dental hygiene. On reacting with chlorinated water, it forms chloroform, which is a known hepatotoxin.
Although triclosan exposure for over six months is known to cause hepatic tumors in rodents, whether this compound directly causes liver tumors or just aids their development is still under speculation. However, it is a relief that many toothpaste companies, including Colgate, are reformulating their products excluding triclosan.
9. Hot tea
The health benefits of tea are drawing people to the habit of drinking freshly brewed tea, which has been an age-old tradition in many communities across the world. While tea is packed with antioxidant power, drinking it piping hot may give you cancer of the esophagus.
Researchers have come to this conclusion because of higher incidence of esophageal cancer in Asian and Middle Eastern populations that habitually drink hot tea. Smoking and alcohol consumption are considered the main risk factors of this cancer in the US and Europe.
But its occurrence in females of these traditional communities – who generally don’t drink or smoke – has shifted the focus to tea drinking. Physical damage to the lining of esophagus is thought to be the risk factor here. So let your tea cool down before you sip it.
10. Burnt food
When you grill food items, especially fish, chicken and meat, the slightly burnt and blackened areas provide a visual appeal as well as a smoky flavor that many of us find attractive. But they can increase your risk of stomach, colon, and pancreatic cancers.
When protein foods are browned, the amino acids that make up protein get converted to heterocyclic amines (HCA). Most of them are highly carcinogenic because they cause damage to our DNAs and induce mutations. Cooking meat and other animal foods on high heat, whether you fry them or broil them, can also produce HCA.
But grilling carries the most cancer risk as the fat dripping from the food gets burnt, releasing smoke that gets absorbed by the foods. This smoke, while enhancing the taste of the food, provides a good dose of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, many of which are carcinogens.
11. Microwave popcorn
Although you can make popcorn in a frying pan or air pop the kernels, who can deny that making microwave popcorn is less messy? But this convenience comes at the risk of cancer. This time, the culprit is the waxy coating of the popcorn bags that produces perfluorooctanoic acid, a carcinogen implicated in prostate and liver cancer.
The risk was first pointed out over 10 years ago in the Journal of Occupational Medicine (1993), but it is a shame that we still continue to favor these all-in-one popcorn bags merely for convenience when healthier ways of popping the corn could give us the same results.
12. Canned foods
Although the convenience of canned goods may be hard to resist, they are not particularly healthy and maybe even dangerous. Vacuum sealing in metal containers lined with plastic coating allayed fears of contamination with heavy metals from the cans as well as the use of harmful chemical preservatives, but it has raised new concerns. The plastic lining of Bisphenol A is implicated in hormonal disturbances and DNA changes that resulted in breast cancer.
While some countries like Canada have already banned polycarbonate baby bottles on account of the cancer risk associated with BPA, others are in denial, probably because of pressure from industries. Sticking to whole foods is always best.
13. Diet soda
You might be avoiding sugary beverages for fear of weight gain and metabolic diseases, or you would have heard about the risk of pancreatic cancer. But if diet soda is taking their place, you are in no less risk of developing cancers. Artificial sweeteners become the villains here. Several studies have linked Saccharin and Cyclamate with bladder cancer, and Aspartame with brain tumors.
They have been banned and reinstated, and several governmental agencies, including National Cancer Institute, vouch for their safety. But aspartame is metabolized into formaldehyde in the body and the fact that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen associated with breast and prostate cancers is conveniently forgotten.
Awareness about the risks of skin cancer and premature aging from exposure to the UV rays from the sun has increased the use of sunscreens. But their diabolical nature is under scanner now. Zinc oxide, a common ingredient in sunscreens is known to produce free radicals which can cause DNA damage and trigger cancer growth.
Benzophenone-3, also called oxybenzone, is another sunscreen ingredient that has a similar effect. Dermal absorption of this chemical is thought to be low, but it has been detected in the urine samples taken 5 days after use.
Although Sweden has put a ban on this chemical, FDA has only limited it to 6% and the European Union Cosmetic Directive allows up to 10% because of its effectiveness in shielding the skin from UV rays.
15. Weed killers
Weed killers have made both manual and mechanical weeding redundant. But the downside is the chemical load they are adding to our soil and water ways and our food. There are many types of weed killers for different purposes. For example, the ones containing 2,4-D are used exclusively for killing broadleaf plants such as dandelions in lawns. But the Glyphosate in Roundup is indiscriminate in its action, destroying all types of vegetation.
World Health Organization has voiced concerns about the cancer risk posed by these active ingredients as well as the surfactants that come along with them. But the large corporates that control the agriculture industry turn a deaf ear to that.
With carcinogens all around us, avoiding cancer may seem like a losing battle. As you can see, most of these cancer risks are the fruits of modern technology, which is why we find cancers to be less prevalent in many undeveloped and economically backward countries.
In the mad pursuit of convenience, we have become over dependent on processed foods and synthetic materials. We can’t wish them away or completely avoid them, but we can definitely reduce exposure by choosing healthier alternatives.