Cancer and Airborne Toxins

Often, risk factors for cancer are described in terms of either genetics or choices an individual makes (such as diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, etc.).  However, some cancers are largely attributable to dangerous and frequently invisible toxins in the environment.  Airborne toxins are especially pernicious, since they may be able to spread over a large area and affect a significant number of people at once.  

Lung Cancer and Radon Gas 

According to the National Cancer Institute, the most common type of cancer for men or women is cancer of the lung.  Smoking, of course, is by far the largest cause of this type of cancer, and secondary smoke is considered an environmental cause.  Though it may seem unlikely, the second largest contributing factor to lung cancer is radon gas, an environmental pollutant caused by the breakdown of radium in the earth’s crust.  While miners are at the greatest risk, this gas can sometimes be found at toxic levels in homes or other buildings.  Short-term testing kits for radon gas are inexpensive, but may help prevent serious complications from this deadly gas. 

Mesothelioma and Asbestos 

Similar to lung cancer but even more dangerous is mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen.  Symptoms of mesothelioma can mimic those of other, less serious lung conditions, often leaving the cancer undiagnosed until its later stages when common treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are much less effective.  This cancer is almost always linked to exposure to asbestos, a thread-like mineral once used widely in construction and insulation materials for its superior heat resistance. 

Because asbestos was most prominent in factories and industries such as construction and shipbuilding in the mid-20th century, it is most commonly men who are diagnosed with mesothelioma.  However, some traditionally female professions such as textile work, hairdressing, and even teaching can lead to asbestos exposure.  Additionally, those with family members who work with asbestos are also at risk, since the fibers can remain on hair and clothing when the worker returns home.  Mesothelioma symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years to manifest, so many people do not immediately connect the symptoms they are presently experiencing with asbestos exposure from decades ago.

Leukemia and Benzene

While leukemia is not connected to a single major cause like lung cancer and mesothelioma, this cancer of the bone marrow is in some cases linked to prolonged exposure to benzene.  Because this chemical was once used as an octane-enhancing gasoline additive, it was most often released into the air through burning and became a major component in the smog that hung over cities where the concentration of automobiles was high.  Though it is no longer found in gas in the United States, benzene is still used as a solvent, primarily in the manufacturing of other chemicals.  Along with many other carcinogens, it is also a component of cigarette smoke.  Unlike radon gas and asbestos, benzene has a detectable sweet smell, making it easier to avoid.  Though it is unlikely that most people will come in contact with high levels of benzene on a regular basis, those who work or worked around crude oil, chemicals, or gasoline may be at risk for developing leukemia.


About this post

Today’s post was written by Krista Peterson, a 22 year old student, working on getting her bachelors at the University of Central Florida. Krista aspires to be a writer and is particularly passionate about the health and wellness of her community. She has had many family members diagnosed with different kinds of cancers ranging from ovarian to breast cancer and various other issues which has led her to be a health and safety advocate.