A carcinogen is a chemical or physical substance that causes or encourages cell tissue to develop cancer. This is because carcinogens have the ability to damage the genetic material of cells, including its chromosomes, genes and DNA. Carcinogens also have the ability to destroy cellular metabolic processes. There are many carcinogens in the environment that can cause cancer with prolonged exposure to them. Below is an explanation of how a carcinogen harms your health.
Many chemicals and physical substances are capable of causing cancer. Some cancer research studies have identified up to 60 different known carcinogens. Some of the more common agents include:
- Tobacco smoke
- Alcoholic beverages
- Wood dust
- Solar radiation
- Estrogen therapy
Asbestos is a type of building material that consists of thin crystals. It can be toxic if it is airborne. Breathing in the particles of asbestos over a prolonged period of time can cause lung cancer or leukemia.
Tobacco smoking is directly related to the vast majority of lung cancer deaths. Tobacco smoke contains more thousands of chemical compounds, with 43 of them being carcinogens.
UV rays from sunlight can cause skin cancer because they create changes in the skin cells. A sunburn is a sign that UV rays have damaged the skin, which directly cause cancer. UV rays can also indirectly cause skin cancer by weakening the skin’s immune mechanisms.
Arsenic is a known carcinogen. Studies suggest that ingesting arsenic can increase the risk of cancer of the skin, lungs, liver and bladder. Inhaling arsenic can increase one’s risk of lung cancer.
The longer the exposure to these substances, the greater the chance of triggering the onset of cancer. There can also be a latency period between exposure to a substance, and the development of cancer. For example, a person who was exposed to asbestos for a period of time, then not exposed for many years after that period, can still develop cancer.
How Carcinogens Cause Cancer
Cancer damages the normal, healthy cells of a person’s body. This causes them to change into cancerous cells, which results in uncontrolled cell growth. The cells’ metabolism and genetic make-up are altered. As the cells rapidly multiply, a tumor – or mass of tissue – is formed. Cancerous cells from these tumors can break away from the mass of tissue and travel to other parts of the body, thus forming cancerous tumors in other areas as well.
Carcinogens can directly cause this uncontrollable cell division in mutated cells. This is because carcinogens alter the genetic make-up of healhty cells. A cancer-causing agent – or carcinogen – can alter the DNA of a cell directly. The carcinogen may also react with other chemicals in the body to create substances that cause genetic mutations of cells.
Once the carcinogen enters a person’s body, it attempts to eliminate the carcinogen through a process called biotransformation. This process makes the carcinogen a more water-soluble substance, which can make it easier to be removed from the body. It is possible, however, that through this process, less toxic carcinogens can be converted into more toxic ones.
It is important to be aware of the carcinogens that are all around us. They can be in the air we breathe, in substances we apply to our bodies, and in the food we eat. Being aware of where these carcinogens are will give us the ability to reduce their presence in our lives.