Cancer Rates on the Rise in Young and Middle-Aged Adults, Beware of These Carcinogens in Your Environment
Cancer Rates on the Rise in Young and Middle-Aged Adults, Beware of These Carcinogens in Your Environment

By Dr. Teng Cheng Liang

Health Viewpoints

A 2022 study published in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology revealed increased cancer rates among individuals aged 50 and below over the past few decades. This trend is associated with young people’s exposure to cancer risk factors, including poor diet and lifestyle, obesity, environmental carcinogens, and unhealthy microbiomes.

Recent research has identified specific foods and dietary habits linked to increased cancer risk. Here are some foods and dietary patterns associated with elevated cancer risk.

Which Foods Are Linked to Cancer Risk?

1. Ultra-Processed Food

Consuming large quantities of ultra-processed food, including sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats like luncheon meats and hot dogs, is associated with an increased risk of colorectal and stomach cancer.

A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2022 found that men who consumed ultra-processed foods had a 29 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer than those who consumed fewer processed foods.

2. Red and Processed Meat

High consumption of red and processed meat may be linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Through a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, researchers revealed that a higher intake of red meat was associated with an increased risk of breast, endometrial, colorectal, and lung cancers, and hepatocellular carcinoma. Additionally, a notable positive correlation was observed between high consumption of processed meat and the risk of breast, colorectal, and lung cancers. Furthermore, heightened susceptibility to colorectal, lung, and renal cell cancers was identified in individuals with elevated consumption of total red and processed meat.

3. Fried and High-Temperature Cooked Foods

Regularly consuming deep-fried foods, grilled meats, and barbecued foods may produce carcinogenic substances, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and acrylamide.

4. High-Sugar Beverages

Overconsumption of beverages with high sugar content increases the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, such as colorectal and breast cancer.

A study published in BMJ Gut found a significant correlation between consuming sugary drinks and an increased risk of colorectal cancer in female adolescents aged 13 to 18. Daily consumption of one extra sugary drink increased the risk of developing cancer before age 50 by 32 percent.

5. High-Salt and Pickled Foods

Long-term excessive salt intake from high-salt diets and pickled foods increases the risk of stomach cancer.

A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found a noteworthy potential twofold rise in the risk of esophageal cancer linked to the consumption of pickled vegetables.

6. Alcohol

Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of various cancers, including oral, throat, esophagus, liver, colorectal, and breast cancer.

A study published in The Lancet Oncology in 2021 estimated that over 740,000 cancer cases diagnosed in 2020 were alcohol-related, accounting for 4.1 percent of all new cancer cases.

What Are Environmental Carcinogens?

Environmental carcinogens are substances or factors present in the environment that are associated with an increased risk of cancer. Common environmental carcinogens include the following:

  • Air pollutants: Airborne pollutants include particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Certain particles and air pollutants are linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, respiratory diseases, and other cancers.
  • Water pollutants: Water contaminants such as heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, lead), organic pollutants (polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers), and pesticide residues are associated with an increased risk of various cancers.
  • Radiation: Ionizing radiation (i.e., X-rays and gamma rays) and nonionizing radiation (i.e., ultraviolet) are associated with increased cancer risk. Long-term exposure to high doses of radiation may increase the risk of leukemia, thyroid cancer, and skin cancer, among others.
  • Chemicals: Many chemicals, such as benzene, benzidine, polychlorinated biphenyls, and formaldehyde, are considered environmental carcinogens. These substances are present in industrial wastewater, workplaces, household products, etc., and are associated with increased cancer risk.
  • Food additives: Certain food additives and preservatives, such as nitrites and nitrosamines, are believed to be associated with an increased risk of stomach and colorectal cancer.
  • Occupational environments: Some environments expose individuals to harmful substances and carcinogens, such as asbestos, arsenic, benzene, and heavy metals, which may increase cancer risk.

It is important to note that the risk of environmental carcinogens depends on the level and duration of exposure and individual sensitivity. Maintaining a clean and healthy environment, following relevant safety and protective measures, and minimizing exposure to carcinogens are essential steps to reduce the risk of environmentally induced cancer.

What Are Group 1 Carcinogens?

Group 1 carcinogens are substances or factors that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified as having a definitive carcinogenic risk to humans. Here are some common substances or elements classified as Group 1 carcinogens:

  • Tobacco and tobacco smoke: This includes tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Particles: This includes airborne particles such as asbestos, silica, nickel, and chromium. Long-term exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.
  • Benzene: Commonly found in the petroleum and chemical industry, exposure to benzene may lead to leukemia and other malignant tumors.
  • Formaldehyde: This substance is widely used in building materials, furniture, and plywood. Long-term exposure to formaldehyde increases the risk of nasopharyngeal and nasosinus cancer.
  • Petroleum products: Products such as coal tar and asphalt can increase the risk of skin and lung cancer with prolonged exposure.
  • Azathioprine and cyclophosphamide: Some chemotherapy drugs used for immunosuppression and cancer treatment are considered to have a carcinogenic risk to humans.

It’s important to note that the carcinogenicity of substances is based on potential risk, and the actual risk depends on factors such as exposure level, duration, and individual sensitivity.

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