Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

10 Misconceptions on the Link Between Environmental Factors and Cancer

Health + Wellness
10 Misconceptions on the Link Between Environmental Factors and Cancer

As a cancer epidemiologist, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the links between environmental contaminants and cancer. One of the pitfalls of the Digital Age is that people come across a lot of information that isn’t based on sound scientific evidence or is, at best, anecdotal. That’s dangerous, because conjecture and falsehoods that masquerade as fact can hamper efforts to prevent and treat cancer.

One of the pitfalls of the Digital Age is that people come across a lot of information that isn’t based on sound scientific evidence or is, at best, anecdotal.

Here are some common misconceptions:

1. Getting cancer is almost completely out of your control.

While genetics and bad luck play a role, many cancers are caused by other factors, some of which you can control.

Smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise are major contributors to the development of cancer. Another 20 percent of cancers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are believed to be caused by environmental factors such as pollution, infections and radiation.

The bottom line: You certainly can’t avoid every potentially dangerous exposure, but as many as half of cancers may be preventable.

2. “Everything” causes cancer.

Almost every day, you may read a news story suggesting that items in your home or substances in your food are linked to cancer or otherwise bad for your health. Recent headlines trumpeted the risks of eating red and processed meats. The constant onslaught of warnings can be overwhelming. But not all chemicals, pollutants or guilty pleasures will lead to cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a research arm of the WHO, has looked into nearly a thousand suspected causes of cancer. Of those suspicious substances and activities, they have concluded that just about half are known or potentially carcinogenic (117 known, 74 probable and 287 possible carcinogens).

Keep in mind that dose plays a key role. Smoking one cigarette probably won’t hurt you, but smoking for years is a clear health hazard.

3. Exposure to a known carcinogen will give you cancer.

Government agencies and international health bodies classify a substance as a “known carcinogen” when strong evidence demonstrates that it can cause cancer. Officials at these institutions base their determinations on the strength of scientific evidence. But a person exposed to a known carcinogen is not 100 percent certain to develop cancer, not by a long shot.

Let’s compare asbestos and processed meats. Both are known carcinogens based on many scientific studies that consistently show they can cause cancer. In both cases, the strength of the evidence is consistently high. But there’s a difference. Asbestos is a potent carcinogen. Substantial exposure dramatically increases a person’s risk of getting mesothelioma, lung and other cancers. On the other hand, eating processed meats only modestly increases your chances of getting cancer.

4. Natural products are safe and synthetic products are harmful.

Arsenic, asbestos, formaldehyde, radiation and tobacco occur naturally and are known carcinogens. The word “natural” on a food label or consumer product is meaningless. The government does not issue standard guidelines for the term, in contrast to “organic,” which can be displayed only by certain foods meeting strict government standards. Arm yourself with information. Read labels, consult Environmental Working Group’s guides and resources, know what you’re buying and don’t assume everything that says “natural” is harmless.

5. Chemicals that the body absorbs and retains for a long time are more dangerous than those that are quickly excreted or metabolized.

The hazard of a substance is determined not just by the degree of exposure but also how it interacts with the body. Sometimes a chemical that isn’t dangerous can metabolize into a compound that is carcinogenic. Nitrates and nitrites in food and water can metabolize during digestion into carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. Other chemicals such as benzene, pesticides and heavy metals are excreted quickly from the body, but they are still carcinogenic. The chemicals that persist in the body can act as a constant source of exposure and may even pass from mother to child, which are additional concerns.

6. The cancer risk you accumulate is irreversible.

Your ability to turn back the clock on cancer risk depends on the exposure. Certain harmful exposures, such as to radiation, damage cells so seriously that the body cannot recover fully. Other substances can accumulate in the body and act as a source of continuous exposure. However, damage from many environmental exposures can be partly reversed by eliminating or significantly reducing the exposure. The Surgeon General’s report on tobacco concluded that quitting smoking at any age reduces a smoker’s risk of cancer by up to 50 percent in just five to 10 years. That’s powerful evidence that it’s never too late to make healthy lifestyle changes.

7. Mammograms cause breast cancer.

The risk associated with the very small amount of radiation emitted during a mammogram is minuscule for most patients. It’s equivalent to a few weeks of the natural background radiation you experience from the elements in the earth, cosmic radiation and even your own body. A small percentage of the carbon that makes up the body is the isotope carbon-14, which is unstable and emits radiation. Women who are pregnant should avoid mammograms and X-rays that their doctors don’t consider necessary. Radiation could harm the developing fetus. Consult your health care professional to determine if a mammogram or any other medical screening is appropriate.

8. Cell phones, Wi-Fi, microwaves, power lines and airport X-ray machines will cause cancer.

Cell phones, Wi-Fi, microwaves and power lines emit non-ionizing radiation, which is less energetic and doesn’t penetrate the body to the same degree as cancer-causing ionizing radiation such as X-rays, sunlight and the radiation from uranium. The WHO considers cell phone radiation a possible carcinogen based on a suspected association between cell phone use and brain cancer. Holding the phone a few millimeters from your body can drastically reduce exposure. EWG recommends hands-free devices and texting. Although little or no evidence supports a conclusion that Wi-Fi signals, microwaves and power lines cause cancer, it’s a good idea to keep wireless routers a few feet from places where people spend long periods of time. Airport screening devices use either low-dose X-rays or non-ionizing radiation. It takes about 1,000 trips through an airport X-ray scanner to equal the radiation exposure from one medical chest X-ray.

9. Artificial turf sports fields cause cancer.

Scientists have detected several carcinogens in ground-up tire rubber, also known as crumb rubber, used as infill and cushioning in artificial turf. Heavy metals, PCBs and other volatile compounds have shown up in some turf. Air measurements over turf, especially in indoor facilities, have found excessive amounts of certain volatile chemicals. Researchers do not know whether worrisome chemicals in turf migrate into the body through contact with skin or breathing. No data exists at this time to say that artificial turf causes cancer, but scientists are just beginning to explore the question. In the meantime, you should play on artificial turf in well-ventilated areas, avoid hand-to-mouth contact while playing and limit direct contact between turf and skin.

10. Residential pesticides are safe.

Many of the pesticides suspected to cause cancer in farm workers are being sold for residential use. Some evidence exists that exposure to pesticides can increase the risk of cancer, even though people tend to apply pesticides less frequently and at lower doses around the home than would be done on farms. Children may be particularly susceptible to damage from pesticides. Scientific studies have shown that children exposed in the womb and in infancy to pesticides face increased risk of childhood cancers such as leukemia and brain tumors.


Cancer Survivor Climbs World’s Tallest Peaks, Helps Others Do the Same

FDA to Start Testing Monsanto’s Glyphosate in Food

Dr. Mark Hyman: Why Scientists Now Call Alzheimer’s ‘Type 3 Diabetes’

So You’re a Sun Worshipper But Worry About Skin Cancer … Here’s What You Need to Know

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A resident works in the vegetable garden of the Favela Nova Esperanca – a "green favela" which reuses everything and is subject to the ethics of permaculture – in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Feb. 14, 2020. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP via Getty Images

Farmers are the stewards of our planet's precious soil, one of the least understood and untapped defenses against climate change. Because of its massive potential to store carbon and foundational role in growing our food supply, soil makes farming a solution for both climate change and food security.

Read More Show Less
Once the virus escapes into the air inside a building, you have two options: bring in fresh air from outside or remove the virus from the air inside the building. Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

By Shelly Miller

The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.

Read More Show Less
California Senator Kamala Harris endorses Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan on March 9, 2020. JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP via Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a historic announcement Tuesday when he named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 presidential election.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

A northern mockingbird on June 24, 2016. Renee Grayson / CC BY 2.0

Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).

Read More Show Less
A spiny dogfish shark swims in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Washington. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

There are trillions of microplastics in the ocean — they bob on the surface, float through the water column, and accumulate in clusters on the seafloor. With plastic being so ubiquitous, it's inevitable that marine organisms, such as sharks, will ingest them.

Read More Show Less


A "vessel of opportunity" skims oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. NOAA / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun

After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.

Read More Show Less