Chemical exposures and cancer prevention: how to minimise risks?

Chemical exposures and cancer prevention: how to minimise risks?
20 Feb 2024
9 mins
Table Of Content
Chemical exposures and cancer prevention: how to minimise risks?

    In the late 1700s, a curious observation by an English physician shed light on a fascinating connection between cancer and a substance in a soot. Chimney sweepers, tasked with cleaning soot, were mysteriously falling ill with cancer, specifically in an unexpected place—their scrotums. It turned out that the soot they were constantly exposed to contained something dangerous: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a group of chemicals known to be hazardous to health. This revelation marked a significant moment in the history of understanding chemicals and cancer in humans.


    Many things can increase your risk of getting cancer, like your age, family history, viruses, bacteria, lifestyle choices, and exposure to harmful substances. When considering all these risks into account collectively, the impact of chemical exposures on causing cancer appears minimal and currently lacks clarity. Substances recognized to cause cancer are referred to as carcinogens. However, being exposed to a carcinogen doesn't guarantee that you will develop cancer. The likelihood depends on various factors such as the type of substance you were exposed to, the frequency of exposure, the duration of exposure, and other contributing factors.


    India holds the 11th position globally in terms of exporting chemicals (excluding pharmaceutical products) and stands at 6th place for importing chemicals (excluding pharmaceutical products). Indians are exposed to a vast number of chemicals every day, with new ones being introduced regularly. These chemicals are in foods, personal products, packaging, medications, household items, and lawn care products. While some chemicals can be harmful, not all of them are dangerous to your health. This blog will explore how exposure to harmful chemicals can affect your cancer risk, how cancer develops, and prevention strategies.


    Chemical Carcinogenesis


    Our bodies have built-in defences to protect against harmful substances, even those that might cause cancer. When a foreign substance enters our body, it goes through a process called metabolism, which helps the body either use or get rid of it more easily. Depending on how a chemical is processed, or metabolised, in the body, there are three types of substances that can contribute to cancer:


    • Chemicals that can directly cause cancer (direct-acting carcinogens).
    • Chemicals that don't cause cancer unless they change during metabolism (procarcinogens).
    • Chemicals that don't cause cancer on their own but can when they interact with another chemical (co carcinogens).


    Cancer happens when the DNA in our cells gets damaged due to these chemicals. This process is known as chemical carcinogenesis. Let's explore this further through a flow chart diagram.

     Exposure to Harmful Chemicals


             Activation of Chemicals


              Interaction with DNA


           Initiation of Tumor Formation

        ↓                               ↓

                                  Tumor Promotion              Accumulation of Genetic Changes

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ↓                               ↓

                Tumor Growth                 Development of Cancer



    Cancer Causing Chemicals in Humans


    Cancer Type

    Associated Substances


    Arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, coke oven fumes, chromium compounds, coal gasification, nickel refining, foundry substances, radon, soot, tars, tobacco smoke, oils, silica


    Aluminum production, rubber industry, leather industry, 4-aminobiphenyl, benzidine

    Nasal cavity and sinuses

    Formaldehyde, isopropyl alcohol manufacture, mustard gas, nickel refining, leather dust, wood dust


    Asbestos, isopropyl alcohol, mustard gas


    Formaldehyde, mustard gas



    Lymphatic and hematopoietic

    Benzene, ethylene oxide, herbicides, x-radiation system


    Arsenic, coal tars, mineral oils, sunlight

    Soft-tissue sarcoma

    Chlorophenols, chlorophenoxyl herbicides


    Arsenic, vinyl chloride




    Where Do We Get Exposed to Chemical Carcinogens?


    Workplaces: Many of these harmful chemicals are encountered where people work, like industries, factories, construction sites, or mines. For example:

    • Arsenic: Used in things like making electronics or treating wood.
    • Asbestos: Used in buildings for insulation or fireproofing.
    • Cadmium: Found in batteries and some paints.
    • Benzene: Used to make plastics, paints, and other products.
    • Vinyl chloride: Used to make plastic pipes and other items.


    Environment: Some chemicals are in the air or water around us, often because of pollution or natural sources. For instance:

    • Radon: A gas that comes from the ground and can get into homes.
    • Sunlight: Too much sun exposure can harm the skin and cause cancer.
    • Air pollution: Dirty air in cities can have harmful substances like soot or tar.


    Things we use: Some chemicals are in products we use every day:

    • Tobacco smoke: From cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Cigarettes contain about 600 ingredients. When they are burned, tobacco smoke produces over 7,000 chemicals. Among these chemicals, at least 69 are recognized to be carcinogenic, and toxic to health.
    • Mineral oils: In makeup, lotions, or other personal care products.
    • Formaldehyde: Used in building materials and some household products.

    Hobbies and activities: Some chemicals are found in things we do for fun or work, like:

    • Sunlight: Spending lots of time outside in the sun without protection.
    • Herbicides: Used in gardening or farming to kill weeds.

    Healthcare: Sometimes, we're exposed to harmful rays or radiations during medical treatments, such as:

    • X-rays: Used to take pictures inside the body or treat diseases.
    • Ethylene oxide: Used to clean medical tools.

    Breaking news alert: The Tamil Nadu government just took action recently on February 17th! They have banned the sale of cotton candy across the state. Why? Well, tests done at the government lab showed something alarming: cancer-causing chemicals in the candy. Specifically, they found Rhodamine-B, a harmful substance not meant for food. This chemical can mess with our cells and tissues, possibly causing cancer and tumors in the long run. It is a serious issue that needs attention right away. Stay informed and spread the word!


    Prevention Strategies to Minimize the Cancer Risk


    Here are some easy ways to lower your chances of getting cancer:

    1. Shield yourself from the sun with sunscreen and protective clothing, especially if you burn easily.

    2. Keep a healthy weight and stay active.

    3. Say no to tobacco, and avoid being around others who smoke.

    4. Regular check-ups with a doctor or health professional are important.

    5. Women should start getting Pap tests around 3 years after becoming sexually active or by age 21, and mammograms starting at age 40.

    6. Colorectal cancer screenings should begin at age 50, unless your doctor recommends starting earlier based on your risk.

    7. Girls should get vaccinated against HPV, and everyone should get the hepatitis B vaccine to prevent liver cancer.


    How Can I reduce the exposure to Household Chemicals?


    1. Be aware of the chemicals in your household products: Many everyday products like cleaners, paints, and degreasers contain potentially harmful chemicals. By checking product labels and researching ingredients, you can make informed choices about what to use in your home.
    2. Use protective gear when handling chemicals: When using products that contain strong chemicals, such as bleach or paint thinner, it's essential to protect yourself. This can include wearing gloves, a mask, or other protective clothing to minimize skin contact and inhalation of fumes.
    3. Store chemicals safely: Proper storage of household chemicals is crucial to prevent accidents. Store them in a cool, dry place out of reach of children and pets. Ensure containers are tightly sealed to prevent spills or leaks that could lead to exposure.
    4. Ventilate when using chemicals: Using chemicals in well-ventilated areas helps to minimize exposure to harmful fumes. Open windows and doors to allow fresh air to circulate, or consider using a fan to improve air circulation.
    5. Test your home for radon: Radon is a radioactive gas that can seep into homes from the ground, especially in areas with high levels of radon in the soil. Testing your home for radon can help identify if levels are elevated, allowing you to take steps to mitigate the risk.
    6. Consider occupational exposure: If your job involves working with chemicals, follow safety protocols and use personal protective equipment as recommended. This can include wearing gloves, goggles, or respirators to minimize exposure to hazardous substances.


    The Bottom Line


    Not all chemicals are harmful, and just because they are in the environment doesn't mean they are inside you leading to cancer. However, it is good to know the chemicals you encounter daily and take proactive steps like the ones mentioned above to lower cancer risks. Screening is key for catching cancer early, which means better chances for a long, healthy life. So, stay informed, take precautions, and get screened regularly to stay on top of your health!


    "Let's choose a path paved with care, where chemicals are rare, and cancer doesn't dare."

    Written by
    Dr VijayalakshmiMedical Content Writer
    AboutDr. Vijayalakshmi is a Medical Content Writer at MrMed. She completed her Bachelor of Dentistry (BDS) from Sri Ramakrishna Dental College, Coimbatore, in 2022, where she expertise in dental and clinical research. During her internship, she has also worked on various research projects and presented scientific papers in national UG seminars. Post her UG, she has upskilled in pharmacovigilance regulations and clinical trial methodology through certification courses. She is proficient in researching, writing, editing, and proofreading medical content and blogs.
    Tags :Cancer causing chemicalschemical carcinogenschemicals and cancer