Cancers and Chemicals

We are bombarded with information all the time that chemicals can cause cancer. But how do we measure the risks and sort out the facts from the scare stories?

Chemicals In The Environment

Each day we are exposed to thousands of man-made chemicals, some of which are relatively harmless or inert, while others we are told could potentially lead to the development of some kind of cancer.

However, in the UK and Europe, we are lucky to have extremely stringent regulations as to what is allowed to be used and at what levels.

Testing And Low Levels

After rigorous testing, chemicals are then only permitted in doses deemed to be low enough to post no threat to the health of humans.

Even so, with the rise in incidences of cancer and its prevalence in the wealthy western world, many causal links have been made with hundreds of chemicals, and environmentalists believe that any risk is too great.

Long-Term Effects Of Chemicals

Cancer can take between 30 to 50 years to express itself in the human body and yet many chemicals have only been in regular use for about the same amount of time. So while those protecting the chemical industry are quick to point out no proven connections with cancer can be made, environmentalists feel that by the time evidence is absolute, it will be too late.

They also point out that some synthetic chemicals readily persist in the environment – in other words they do not degrade for many years and are accumulating in some areas in numbers higher than the low levels ‘allowed’.

Chemicals Containing Known Carcinogens

Although there are many disputed sources of so-called cancer-causing chemicals, there are also some which are known to be specifically problematic. Amongst these are:

  • Dioxins
  • Industrial pollutants
  • Radon
  • Asbestos
  • Tobacco smoke


‘Dioxin’ is a general term for the chemical bi-products of industrial processes such as the burning of industrial waste, chlorine bleaching and the manufacture of pesticides. There are hundreds of dioxins, the most toxic of which is a cancer-forming chemical called TCDD.

When released into the atmosphere, dioxins persist in the environment, binding closely with fatty tissue, such as in that of fish, and can lead to bio-accumulation in our bodies further up the food chain.

Our risk of developing cancer from dioxins is posed mainly by consuming meat and dairy products which contain them.

Occupational Exposure To Industrial Chemicals

There are many chemicals which are carcinogenic and which in the low doses which most of us are exposed to, are thought to do little harm. However for people who work with such chemicals, the risks can be much greater.

It has been estimated that two percent of cancer deaths in the UK are as a direct result of working with such cancer-forming substances as:

  • Benzene
  • Arsenic
  • Solvents
  • Cadmium and Benzidine dyes
  • Beryllium

‘Deliberate’ Exposure

Perhaps the biggest single risk we can take to developing cancer from chemicals is to do so in a deliberate manner.

Smoking has long been proven to cause cancer with the smoke from a cigarette containing 69 carcinogenic chemicals including arsenic, radioactive polonium-210, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, cadmium, chromium, and benzene.

Other decisions we make about our food choices can also affect to what extent we put ourselves at risk.

Weigh The Risks

All in all, it is almost impossible to avoid all chemicals. However, it is possible to take sensible precautions by living sustainably, healthily and where possible, by making green choices.