Chemicals That Cause Cancer

Dr. Adrienne Sprouse

Dr. Adrienne Sprouse

Although genetics may play a role in some cancers, there is overwhelming evidence that many environmental chemicals cause cancer to develop.  These chemicals are present in products we use every day.  Knowing which chemicals to avoid can reduce your risk of cancer.


Human studies have shown that exposure to benzene can cause leukemia.  What’s worse, increasing exposure to benzene results in increased deaths from leukemia.  Benzene can be inhaled, eaten, or absorbed through the skin.   Products containing benzene include:  gasoline (especially fuel evaporation at the gas pump), cigarette smoke, cigarette lighter fluid, charcoal lighter fluid,  adhesives, contact cements, glues, inks and ink markers, rubber cement, vinyl thinner, asphalts, fire ant killer, spray paint, foods containing both benzoate and ascorbic acid additives, etc.


This class of mycotoxin (poisonous substance given off by mold) can cause liver cancer.  Exposure to aflatoxins occurs primarily by eating contaminated food such as corn and other grains, peanuts, tree nuts, and cottonseed meal.  Eating meat, eggs, and milk from animals that consume aflatoxin-contaminated feed is also a source of potential exposure.  Nursing infants may be exposed to aflatoxins in breast milk.  Occupational exposure results from inhaling dust during the handling and processing of contaminated crops.  Water-damaged buildings which grow the Aspergillis species of mold may be an unsuspected source of this toxin.

Vinyl Chloride

This chemical can cause cancer in the blood vessels of the liver, and brain, lung, and lymphoma.  It is used in the plastics industry to produce polyvinyl chloride used in furniture, medical supplies, wrapping film, flooring, windows, automotive parts, and credit cards.  Exposure occurs by breathing contaminated air (especially emissions and effluents from the plastics industry), ingestion of contaminated water or food, or dermal contact with consumer products.

Wood Dust

Strong and consistent association was found with cancer of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses.  Exposure occurs with the use of machinery or tools to cut or shape wood, or from handling compost containing wood dust.  Larger particle sizes (> 5 um diameter) remain in the nose, while smaller particle sizes (0.5 to 5 um diameter) are deposited in the lower airways.  Wearing a facemask that covers the nose and mouth can reduce the exposure.

Tobacco-Related Exposures

Tobacco smoking can cause cancer of the lung, urinary bladder, kidney collecting structures, mouth, throat, and pancreas in humans.  This is not surprising since tobacco contains more than 2,500 chemical constituents, many of which are known to be carcinogenic to humans.

Other well-known associations have also been made:   Asbestos and mesothelioma; Diethylstibestrol and female genital tract and placental cancers;  Benzidine and bladder cancer; 4-Aminopiphenyl and bladder cancer—the list is extensive.

Familiarize yourself with these cancer-causing chemicals so you can avoid them.  More information about carcinogens may be found in the Report on Carcinogens, 12th Edition (2011), National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services at

You may also view my latest Your Environmental Minute segment on Cancer at

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