Environmental causes of cancer occur when certain substances or conditions – known as ‘carcinogens’ – cause DNA damage, disrupt hormones, or alter gene expression. This can cause cells to grow and divide abnormally. Carcinogens may come from your own lifestyle choices, chemicals in the environment, or products you purchase.

Researching carcinogens has become a major focus. This includes determining which substances and conditions cause cancers, who is most affected by them, and whether a particular chemical or substance poses any risks for developing cancer.

These elements can be found in our homes, workplaces, and the environments we use for work or recreation. They exist in the air, water, soil, and even in the foods we eat.

Though we may not be able to prevent everything, we can try our best to minimize our exposure to carcinogens and other pollutants by making changes in our diet, exercising more frequently, and taking measures to keep our homes clean.

Next week in Charlotte, North Carolina, The American Association for Cancer Research will host a conference to review current advances and spark conversation about potential future directions in this field. We spoke with conference co-chairs Margaret Kripke Ph.D. FAACR and Ernest Hawk MD MPH and Timothy Rebbeck Ph.D. both from The University of Texas at Austin’s MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dana Farber Cancer Institute about what attendees can expect at this year’s meeting and potential pathways towards cancer prevention.

Different environmental causes of cancer exist, but they all share one common goal: to damage DNA or alter gene expression. Some causes are biological (specific viruses or bacteria), others physical (ultraviolet rays, x-rays, or other radiation), while still others are chemical.

Smoking tobacco smoke, for instance, is a major risk factor for lung cancer that can be avoided by quitting as soon as you start using it or by avoiding secondhand smoke. Furthermore, alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased likelihood of certain types of cancers.

Though there is a myriad of chemical and environmental factors that can cause cancer, some are well-known, such as asbestos which has been linked to lung and other types of cancers. Other substances – like lead or mercury – haven’t yet been fully understood but their consequences can still be devastating.

Though there is still debate over the exact role environmental factors play in cancer development, there is mounting evidence to support their interaction. Some researchers have even suggested that genetic defects may become manifest when exposed to pollution.

Dr. Zuo-Feng Zhang, MD, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, believes this is a complex but vital issue. By comprehending how our environment and genes control our cells in concert, we may discover new approaches to prevent or treat cancer more effectively, according to Dr. Zhang’s work.