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Environmental Causes of Lung Cancer

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Updated September 25, 2012

Many environmental exposures can contribute to lung cancer risk in addition to smoking, and, like smoking, many of these are avoidable if we are aware of them. You can reduce your risk by doing things as simple as testing your home for radon and using an appropriate mask when working with certain chemicals. Some of the most common environmental causes of lung cancer include:

Radon

Exposure to radon in the home is the second-leading cause of lung cancer and the leading cause in nonsmokers. Radon is a radioactive gas that is produced by the natural decay of uranium in the soil. It can enter homes through cracks in the foundation, around sump pumps and drains and through gaps around pipes and wires. Having been found in homes in all 50 states, the only way to know if you are safe is to test for radon. Simple do-it-yourself test kits are available at most hardware stores.

Asbestos

Exposure to asbestos is ordinarily considered an occupational exposure, but working with asbestos insulation in older homes (those built prior to 1970) can result in exposure too. Asbestos is responsible for roughly 84% of cases of mesothelioma, a cancer involving the lining of the lungs. Left alone, asbestos poses little danger, but exposure can result if it is disturbed. If you choose to remodel a home that may contain asbestos insulation, hire a certified contractor.

Air Pollution

Air pollution has been looked at as a possible risk factor for lung cancer, because there is a significant difference between the incidence of lung cancer in urban and rural areas, with lung cancer being more prevalent in urban areas. It is uncertain to what degree air pollution contributes to lung cancer in the United States, but according to the largest study to date, more than 10% of lung cancers in Europe may be secondary to air pollution.

Industrial Chemicals

As with asbestos, most exposures to cancer-causing chemicals occur in the workplace. Certain products used in the home, such as some wood strippers, contain chemicals that are associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. It is important to read labels on any of these products and take appropriate precautions as directed on the packaging.

Radiation Exposure

Exposure to medical radiation to the chest for other cancers, for example Hodgkin’s lymphoma or breast cancer, can increase the risk of lung cancer, although the benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. In Japan, exposure to atomic bomb radiation was associated with an elevated risk of developing lung cancer.

Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer in an exposed nonsmoker two- to- three-fold times. It is currently felt to be responsible for 1.6% of lung cancers in the United States.

Wood Smoke

Exposure to wood smoke may increase the risk of lung cancer. Converting from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces to other options, such as gas fireplaces, is one way to reduce this risk.

Sources:

ACS. Radiation Exposure and Cancer. Updated 03/29/10. http://www.cancer.org/docroot/PED/content/PED_1_3X_Radiation_Exposure_and_Cancer.asp

Boffetta, P. Human cancer from environmental pollutants: the epidemiological evidence. 2006. Mutation Research. 608(2):157-62.

CDC. NIOSH Carcinogen List. Accessed 02/28/12. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/cancer/npotocca.html

Delgado, J. et al. Lung cancer pathogenesis associated with wood smoke exposure. 2005. Chest. 128(1):6-8.

Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos. Updated 00/24/12. http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/help.html

Environmental Protection Agency. Radon. Updated 09/17/12. http://www.epa.gov/radon/

Nafstad, P. et al. Lung Cancer and air pollution: a 27 year follow up of 16209 Norwegian men. 2003. Thorax. 58(12):1010-2.

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