Four "Ubiquitous" Cancer-Causing Chemicals to Avoid
According to the National Cancer Institute, each of these is common and worth staying away from
You eat well, try to maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and get the recommended cancer screenings. In other words, you’re doing your best to stave off chronic diseases, including cancer. What else can you do to avoid the dreaded illness?
You can evaluate your exposure to four chemicals that have been linked with many cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and take steps to reduce or eliminate it.
Each of these chemicals is a likely or probable carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, and Americans' exposure to them is "ubiquitous" based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, according to the latest NCI Cancer Trends Progress Report.
Arsenic occurs naturally in air, water and soil. It’s also released into the environment by agricultural and industrial processes. There are two types: organic and inorganic. The latter kind is “highly toxic” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Exposure to inorganic arsenic has been linked with cancers of the prostate, liver, nasal passages, kidney, skin, lung and bladder.
The WHO notes countries with high levels of inorganic arsenic in the groundwater include the United States. People are typically exposed to it by drinking water contaminated with it or eating foods irrigated with or prepared with contaminated water.
Related: Is There Arsenic in Your Wine?
According to NCI, a major dietary source of inorganic arsenic is rice. It takes up arsenic from the soil and water more readily than other grains, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes rice is of particular concern because it is a major part of the diet in many parts of the world and a main ingredient in many infant cereals. “Nearly all rice products have been found to contain at least some arsenic, although the levels can vary widely,” writes the ACS.
In 2013, FDA released the results of its analysis of more than 1,000 samples of rice and rice products. According to the FDA, the levels found “are too low to cause immediate or short-term adverse health effects.”
One way to minimize the arsenic levels in rice, it discovered, was to boil the rice in extra water, specifically, six to ten parts water to one part rice. This lowered levels of inorganic arsenic by to 43 to 61 percent. Rinsing rice didn’t help much and washed away valuable nutrients.
You can also be exposed to arsenic if you smoke cigarettes or breathe in second-hand smoke.
If you’re worried about arsenic in your water, you can check the quality of your local water supply and see what the arsenic levels are. If they are too high, you might consider using bottled water.
If you garden, you can also assess your soil for arsenic and learn how to improve it.
Benzene is in gasoline and crude oil and is used as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Exposure has been linked mainly with leukemia and other cancers of blood cells.
Breathing air containing benzene is the main route of exposure — but tighter regulations have reduced the amount of benzene in the air in recent years. Cigarette smoke, cleaning products, glues, paints and paint strippers are other sources of benzene.
To help reduce your exposure, look for paint that’s been certified by a third party, such as UL's GREENGUARD certification, as free or low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, including benzene. Don't smoke, and stay away from secondhand smoke. Limit your exposure to fumes from gasoline, too. When filling up, don't stay at the service station any longer than necessary; if there is a line, consider returning at a less busy time.
Related: The Hidden Dangers in Paint
Cadmium, found in low concentrations in the earth's crust, is used to make batteries, metal coatings, plastic and pigments. Most people in the United States are exposed to small amounts of cadmium every day through food, cigarette smoke, drinking water and air.
Some soil may contain cadmium, and if food is grown in it, it can contain cadmium, too.
Cadmium exposure has been linked with cancer of the lung, prostate, kidney, pancreas, breast and bladder.
To limit your exposure, don't smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke. Workers in battery production or the plastics industry should discuss special precautions with their doctors. Don't allow children to play with nickel-cadmium batteries, warns the NCI. And dispose of them properly, dropping them at your community's hazardous waste collection site or recycling center (or calling your community's trash pickup department for guidance).
Nitrates (as well as nitrites) are found in water, soil and some foods such as processed meats. Nitrate is also in nitrogen-based fertilizers and can end up in shallow wells and surface water supplies due to fertilizer runoff. Drinking from these sources can expose you to high nitrate levels.
Too much nitrate exposure has been linked with higher risks of cancers of the colon, kidney and stomach. These cancers have been diagnosed among people who drink a lot of water with nitrate and those who eat a lot of nitrate-containing meats. Weaker evidence links nitrate exposure to thyroid and ovarian cancer in women and to pancreatic cancer.
Too much nitrate is especially dangerous for infants younger than four months.
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