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Genetics of Skin Cancer (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Basal Cell Carcinoma

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Other environmental factors

Environmental factors other than sun exposure may also contribute to the formation of BCC and SCC. Petroleum byproducts (e.g., asphalt, tar, soot, paraffin, and pitch), organophosphate compounds, and arsenic are all occupational exposures associated with cutaneous nonmelanoma cancers.[5,6,7]

Arsenic exposure may occur through contact with contaminated food, water, or air. While arsenic is ubiquitous in the environment, its ambient concentration in both food and water may be increased near smelting, mining, or coal-burning establishments. Arsenic levels in the U.S. municipal water supply are tightly regulated; however, control is lacking for potable water obtained through private wells. As it percolates through rock formations with naturally occurring arsenic, well water may acquire hazardous concentrations of this material. In many parts of the world, wells providing drinking water are contaminated by high levels of arsenic in the ground water. The populations in Bangladesh, Taiwan, and many other locations have high levels of skin cancer associated with elevated levels of arsenic in the drinking water.[8,9,10,11,12] Medicinal arsenical solutions (e.g., Fowler's solution and Bell's asthma medication) were once used to treat common chronic conditions such as psoriasis, syphilis, and asthma, resulting in associated late-onset cutaneous malignancies.[13,14] Current potential iatrogenic sources of arsenic exposure include poorly regulated Chinese traditional/herbal medications and intravenous arsenic trioxide utilized to induce remission in acute promyelocytic leukemia.[15,16]

Aerosolized particulate matter produced by combustion of arsenic-containing materials is another source of environmental exposure. Arsenic-rich coal, animal dung from arsenic-rich regions, and chromated copper arsenate–treated wood produce airborne arsenical particles when burned.[17,18,19] Burning of these products in enclosed unventilated settings (such as for heat generation) is particularly hazardous.[20]

Clinically, arsenic-induced skin cancers are characterized by multiple recrudescent SCCs and BCCs occurring in areas of the skin that are usually protected from the sun. A range of cutaneous findings are associated with chronic or severe arsenic exposure, including pigmentary variation (poikiloderma of the skin) and Bowen disease (SCC in situ).[21]

Pigmentary characteristics

The high-risk phenotype is fairly conserved across the following skin types:

  • Fair skin that sunburns easily.
  • Lightly pigmented irides (blue and green).
  • Presence of freckles in sun-exposed sites.
  • Poor ability to tan.

Specifically, people with more highly pigmented skin demonstrate lower incidence of BCC than do people with lighter pigmented skin. Individuals with Fitzpatrick skin types I or II were shown to have a twofold increased risk of BCC in a small case-control study.[22] (Refer to the Pigmentary characteristics section in the Melanoma section of this summary for a more detailed discussion of skin phenotypes based upon pigmentation.)

Immunosuppression

Immunosuppression also contributes to the formation of nonmelanoma (keratinocyte) skin cancers. Among solid-organ transplant recipients, the risk of SCC is 65 to 250 times higher, and the risk of BCC is 10 times higher than in the general population.[23,24,25] Nonmelanoma skin cancers in high-risk patients (i.e., solid-organ transplant recipients and chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients) occur at a younger age and are more common, more aggressive, and at a higher risk of recurrence and metastatic spread than nonmelanoma skin cancers in the general population.[26,27] Among patients with an unmodified immune system, BCCs outnumber SCCs by a 4:1 ratio; in transplant patients, SCCs outnumber BCCs by a 2:1 ratio.

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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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