Common Carcinogens You Should Know

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 11, 2022
4 min read

You've probably heard the word "carcinogen" pop up in news stories and wondered what that means for your everyday life. A carcinogen is something that can cause you to have cancer. It may be a substance in the air, a product you use, or a chemical in foods and drinks.

Just because you had contact with a carcinogen doesn't mean that you'll get cancer. Your chance of getting sick depends on many things. How much you've been exposed to it is part of it. Your genes also play a role.

Researchers use different methods to decide whether something should be called a carcinogen. Large doses of a substance can be given to lab animals to see if they get cancer. Scientists also study the results of many studies.

It doesn't matter whether you're a smoker or breathing in someone else's smoke. At least 70 chemicals in tobacco are known to cause cancer by damaging your DNA.

Smokeless tobacco may seem safer, but it can lead to cancer, too. Even light smoking raises your risk, so talk to your doctor about ways to quit.

This gas occurs in small amounts in nature, where it's harmless. But if it builds up indoors and you breathe it in, radon breaks down the lining of your lungs.

It's the No. 1 cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. You can't see or smell radon, but a special test can check the levels in your home. Some state radon offices offer kits for free.

The tough, tiny fibers in asbestos help strengthen products like roof shingles, ceiling tiles, and car parts. Yet if these fibers break free and you breathe them in, they can get lodged inside your lungs.

Studies of people and animals have shown that asbestos is a carcinogen. If you come into contact with it at your job, wear protective gear. If it's in your home and needs to be removed, hire an expert.

When some vegetables, like potatoes, are heated to high temps, they can give off a chemical called acrylamide. Studies show that rats who took in acrylamide in their drinking water got cancer, so researchers think humans might also.

You can cut the amount you eat by baking, roasting, frying, and toasting foods until they're a tan color instead of golden or deep brown. Acrylamide is also found in many products you buy as well as in tobacco smoke.

From plywood to some fabrics, this chemical is used in many household products. Studies on lab rats and people who are around formaldehyde at their jobs show it can cause cancer.

Before buying any wood products or furniture for your home, find out if they contain formaldehyde. Air out your house every day and keep humidity levels low with an air conditioner or dehumidifier.

Studies show that ultraviolet (UV) rays, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, get absorbed into your skin and damage the cells there. Most skin cancer cases are due to UV rays.

Pollution and climate change make these rays stronger. To stay safe, protect your skin with sunscreen, wear a hat and sunglasses, and avoid tanning salons.

The more alcohol you drink, the greater your odds of getting certain kinds of cancers, such as:

One reason for this may be carcinogenic chemicals produced when beer, wine, and hard liquor are made. Experts suggest women have no more than one drink each day and men no more than two.

Bacon, salami, pepperoni, sausage -- any meat that's been preserved or flavored can raise your chances of getting colon cancer. Experts reached that view by looking at more than 800 studies.

Eating a hot dog every once in a while is fine, but limit how much processed meat you have as much as you can. Try to limit foods that have been salted, fermented, cured or smoked.

Trucks, buses, trains, and even some cars run on diesel fuel. The gas and soot in diesel engine exhaust are believed to cause lung cancer and other types of cancer.

When you can, avoid idling in traffic or spending time next to diesel-run vehicles. If it's part of your job, follow workplace safety guidelines to protect your health.

Aside from exhaust, polluted outdoor air contains dust and traces of metals and solvents that can lead to cancer. Experts know this from looking at data from over 1.2 million people across the U.S.

You can't avoid pollution, but you can do your part to avoid contributing to it by walking or biking instead of driving. Follow local public health warnings and stay indoors on days when air quality is bad.