What are Carcinogens and Where Do They Come From?

You might have read health articles that are telling you to avoid certain food and chemicals that contain cancer-causing carcinogens, but what do we know about these substances and why do they cause cancer?

What is a Carcinogen?

Carcinogens are substances and exposures that can cause cancer. They can be physical, chemical or biological in nature, and when accumulate in large amounts in the body for a long period, can cause damage to the cells in the body.

Although carcinogens are not the only cause of cancers, it is thought to be the primary reason for such cases. As of today, carcinogens are classified into five categories based on their sources; these are, diet, smoke, radiation, pathogens, and environmental or occupational hazards. These carcinogens can be found in the diet, naturally-occurring phenomena, medical treatments, pollution and household and workplace exposures.

Why are They Linked to Cancer?

Cancer is still considered a mystery despite the advances in medicine in the last several years. However, there are studies that confirm that one factor that increases the risk of developing cancer are the exposure to carcinogens. The damage caused by carcinogens to the cells over a long period of time can cause the growth of cancer cells.

Cancer is not just one disease, but has many types, depending on where it starts. It’s a condition where the cells grow out of control and crowd out the normal, healthy cells. Not all carcinogens cause cancer, however, and most of them can only cause the disease after a prolonged exposure at high levels. The genetic makeup of the person is also an important factor when assessing the risk of developing cancer from such exposures.

What are the Categories of Carcinogen?

Carcinogens are identified primarily through laboratory tests and epidemiologic studies. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are over 900 probable carcinogens, but only 100 of these are carcinogenic to humans.

Some of the known carcinogens that you need to watch out for are the following: acetaldehyde, aflatoxins, arsenic, asbestos, beryllium, cadmium, coal, coal tars, ethanol in alcoholic drinks, formaldehyde, chronic hepatitis B or C infection, HIV-1, HPV, leather dust, iron and steel founding exposure, outdoor air pollution, prolonged exposure to paint, salted fish, processed meat, tobacco or smoking, UV radiation, wood dust, prolonged exposure to sunbeds or sunlamps, soot, and many more.

Exposure to the carcinogens listed above does not mean you will automatically develop cancer, but prolonged exposure at high levels and your body’s response will determine that. Some people have healthier bodies that are resistant to these carcinogens, because their bodies can easily repair damage to their cells than the others.

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