Hidden Carcinogens (Cancer causing substances)

Updated: Sep 16


While most of us are aware of obvious carcinogens such as tobacco, alcohol, and asbestos, a large number of carcinogens that we are exposed to on a daily basis are covertly woven into our lifestyle. Recognizing these carcinogens and limiting our exposure to them can reduce our risk of cancer

What is a Carcinogen?

In my previous post I mentioned how 90 to 95% of cancers are not hereditary, and that they are a result of genetic mutations triggered by lifestyle and the environment. Substances that are capable of initiating these changes and cause cancer are collectively called “carcinogens”. While most of us are aware of obvious carcinogens such as tobacco, alcohol, and asbestos, a large number of carcinogens that we are exposed to on a daily basis are covertly woven into our lifestyle.


The goal of this post is to create awareness about unrevealed carcinogens, that we encounter in our day-to-day life, as a first step towards cancer prevention.


How bad is the Carcinogen?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a division of the World Health Organization (WHO) whose role is to publish the latest research and surveillance of carcinogens. According to the IARC, carcinogens are of 4 types depending on the strength of research available to support the link between the substance and cancer. Here are some common carcinogens belonging to Groups 1 and 2A, that are definitely and probably carcinogenic to humans, respectively.


Group 1: includes those that are definitely carcinogenic (capable of causing cancer) to humans as supported by sufficient evidence from studies in humans.

  • Alcohol consumption: No cheers to that!

  • Tobacco smoke including second-hand smoke: Stop being tolerant towards neighbours who smoke.

  • Betel quid (supari) consumption with or without tobacco: Check your paan before chewing it.

  • Consumption of processed meats: Sorry you hot dog and ham sandwich lovers!

  • Outdoor air pollution: So lets start using our legs more and cars less!


Group 2A: includes those that are probably carcinogenic to humans as supported by limited evidence from human studies and sufficient evidence from animal studies.

  • Red meat including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat: Goodbye mutton biryani and lamb chops!

  • Compounds in smoked cheese (benz[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, and dibenz[a,h] anthracene)

  • Night shift work! Simply messing up your day and night increases your risk of cancer.

  • Fumes from high temperature frying: Stop inhaling those fumes while you fry your fries…and even better….stop eating those fries!

  • Anabolic steroids used by athletes to improve performance: It’s truly not about the bike :)

  • Acrylamide is the brown crispy stuff that forms on high temperature cooking of potatoes and cereal grain foods: Double whammy for those who love potato chips and burned toast!

  • Hairdressers have a higher risk of certain cancers due to their occupational exposure to chemicals in hair dyes and treatment agents: Make sure you ventilate those salons!


Overweight and Obesity - a special note:

Even though being overweight or obese is not classified as a carcinogen, it is the second highest risk factor for cancer, only second to tobacco. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of at least 13 different cancers and is responsible for 11 to 20% of cancer related deaths…

….but the good news is that losing those extra kilos can help reverse that risk!



Bottom line:

Mentioned above are just a few examples of carcinogens that we encounter on a daily basis. There is an entire list of substances available here that we probably consume in our state of ignorance. My goal isn’t to frighten you. Cancer results from a complex interaction of carcinogens, their dose and frequency of exposure, and our body’s response to it. The good news is that while we may not be able to control some exposures, we can at least start reading labels of things we consume and apply on our body, and manage our weight. Besides, we always have lifestyle to combat exposures that are beyond our control!


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