Environmental and occupational carcinogens

It is important to understand that there will always be a level of unknown health risk with many commercial products. Thousands of products are marketed with a large number of ingredients that have not been, and may never adequately be, assessed for health risk by industry, government or independent experts. It is also very difficult to know whether some substances may act in a synergistic manner with other materials.  In other words, it is possible that the effects of the combined exposures may be more than the sum of the effects exposure to each material alone. The wide range of interactions and the subsequent risk that may result from combining different materials may never be accurately understood.

The risk of cancer from environmental or occupational carcinogens (cancer causing substances) is affected by how much of the substance a person is exposed to, its concentration, its form, the timing of the exposure (when and how long exposure occurs), other substances a person is exposed to, and individual sensitivity, which in turn can be influenced by age, gender, health status and genetic make-up. The health effects documented in research studies are most often based on exposure to high levels of the pure form of a single substance.

At work

Although some degree of risk is an accepted part of life, it is important to have a sound knowledge of the cancer-causing chemicals or substances in each individual workplace. In Australia, employers are required to inform staff about the hazards of any chemicals in the workplace. All workplace safety precautions should be followed very carefully. Employers must provide material safety data sheets containing detailed information on chemicals, their health effects and advice on how workers should protect themselves.

Cancer Council has developed fact sheets around various occupational carcinogens. For access to these fact sheets, other resources, and more information on workplace cancer, please visit kNOw workplace cancer.

At home

Since potential causes of cancer are still being discovered, reading labels carefully and following directions provided on everyday household products will help prevent any unnecessary exposure, or over exposure, to chemicals or other substances that may have the potential to cause harm. Most of the known environmental carcinogens won’t cause cancer unless one is exposed to high concentrations of the chemical over extended time periods. If you are worried, cut down or discontinue your use of commercial household chemicals and use alternatives such as lemon juice, white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda.

Naturally occurring carcinogens

Cancer causing agents aren’t solely man-made. They can also occur naturally in the environment. For instance, asbestos, radon and arsenic are found naturally in the earth. Eliminating all man-made carcinogens wouldn’t remove all the carcinogens in the environment.