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What Are Carcinogens?

February 17, 2022

It’s natural to worry about the potential hazards of the substances in the environment — especially those that cause cancer. Genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures can play a role in developing cancer. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint why one person gets it and another doesn’t — despite massive efforts by researchers. However, you can take a few preventative measures to reduce risk, starting with avoiding these common carcinogens. Most people have heard of dangerous cancer-causing agents referred to as “carcinogens,” but what is a carcinogen? 

What Is a Carcinogen?

A carcinogen is a substance, product, or chemical that can cause cancer to develop in your body. Carcinogen exposure doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get cancer, although it may increase the risk. This risk depends on the strength of the carcinogen, the length of time you’re exposed, and how your body responds to the exposure. There are many cancer-causing products that contain carcinogens that you use in your daily life — without even realizing it.

How Do Carcinogens Cause Cancer?

Carcinogens can affect the body in multiple ways. The most harmful carcinogenic effects lead to cancer by directly damaging DNA, causing the cells to mutate or divide faster than average. However, some carcinogens don’t directly cause cancer. Instead, they increase the body’s susceptibility to the disease by weakening the systems already set in place to defend it. How the body will react depends on a person’s genetic makeup and the specifics of their exposure to the carcinogens.

Common Types of Carcinogens

Many types of carcinogens can be found in everyday life, including certain foods, tobacco, and exposure to sunlight. Other carcinogenic substances exist naturally, such as radon gas, ultraviolet light, and specific infectious agents – particularly some viruses. The following list includes the most widely used carcinogens, despite the available information regarding the harmful side effects of these cancer-causing agents. 


Tobacco is still widely used around the country and the world. There are at least 70 known cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco. Whether you’re smoking it yourself or breathing in someone else’s, these chemicals are known to cause cancer by damaging DNA. Even light smoking can cause significant lung damage. It’s best to talk to your doctor about ways to quit if you smoke tobacco. 


Though harmless in small amounts, Radon gas is incredibly toxic when it builds up indoors, breaking down the lining of the lungs. Radon is the number one cause of cancer in non-smokers. Although you can’t see or smell radon, you can check the levels in your home through a particular test.   


Asbestos is also known to be carcinogenic. The tiny fibers are used to strengthen tiles, car parts, and roof tiles, but they can lodge themselves inside the lungs when breathed in. Wear protective gear if you come in contact with asbestos at work. If you have it in your home, call an expert to remove it.

Contaminants in Drinking Water

High-risk contaminants in water include arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and radioactive elements such as uranium and radium. Researchers have found that drinking from the United States’ water system could contribute to 15,500 cancer cases throughout your lifetime. These combined chemicals can increase your risk. Filtering your water is the best option because it can still have contaminants even if it follows regulations. You can also send a sample for testing if you’re unsure what’s in your water.

Air Pollutants

Exhaust fumes and many air pollutants are also environmental carcinogens harmful to your body and may lead to different types of cancer.

Crispy Brown Foods and Processed Meat

Some foods have carcinogenic elements that many people aren’t aware of. Some vegetables and potatoes give off a chemical called acrylamide when heated to high temperatures, leading to cancer. Baking, roasting, frying, or toasting your foods until they’re a tan color instead of golden brown will help reduce your exposure to carcinogens. Additionally, meat that has been preserved or flavored may increase the body’s risk of developing colon cancer. Acrylamide is also found in tobacco.


Excessive drinking is linked to head, neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancers. It’s important to limit alcohol consumption, as the chemicals created during production can be carcinogenic in large doses. Your body produces a chemical that metabolizes when you drink alcohol, damaging DNA and leading to cancer. 

Speak to your physician about minimizing exposure to potential common carcinogens during and after cancer treatment. At Horizon Oncology & Research Center, we bring the promise and research of early-stage clinical trials to the communities where our patients live. Contact us to learn more or schedule an appointment.