Is it Really Possible to Avoid Carcinogens?

Carcinogenic substances in everyday life

In the western world, cancer is the second leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease. The fear of the disease is great and recurring reports about carcinogenic substances (carcinogens) in the home and the environment irritate many people. Is the fear justified?

Asbestos: from miracle material to dreaded carcinogen

From the 1960s onwards, asbestos was regarded as one of the most carcinogenic substances. The naturally occurring mineral fiber was for a long time the "miracle material" in the building sector. It was mainly used as insulation and insulation material, as well as on the underside of PVC floors and in night storage heaters that were produced before 1980. Asbestos was also used as an insulation material in household appliances such as hairdryers and toasters. As a result, the substance is still hidden in apartments and houses today.

The fear of asbestos is well founded: For example, asbestos in older construction products such as cement or insulation material can be released into the air if improperly processed. The fine asbestos fibers are inhaled and can penetrate the lungs, but cannot be broken down by our immune cells. The fibers set a chronic stimulus, which can lead to lung, abdominal or pleural cancer.

Radon: light gas with serious consequences

When it comes to the causes of lung cancer, most people think of smoking first. Another possible cause is less well known - the noble gas radon. Radon is a radioactive intermediate product of uranium that occurs in rocks, with the concentration varying depending on the type of rock. Since radon is gaseous, when inhaled, radon decay products can get stuck in the moist airways and cause an increased risk of lung cancer in the long term. If radon escapes naturally from the soil, it is quickly diluted; However, if it penetrates into a house, e.g. through a leaky basement floor, it can accumulate there and reach concentrations that are hazardous to health. Careful sealing between the floor and the house therefore plays a key role.

However, radon can also get into the house through spring and groundwater, if this risk is also rather low in Austria. There is only an increased risk in areas with a relatively high radon potential (e.g. in parts of the Waldviertel and Mühlviertel), with an existing house well or a small local water supply. The "Radon Map Austria" shows the average radon potential of different regions. If you yourself are at a high risk of radon, remedial measures such as improved floor insulation or special ventilation systems can help.

Benzene: if it doesn't smell good, it's not good

Anyone who works with paints, varnishes, adhesives or coating materials often perceives a characteristic "chemical" smell. It is no coincidence that most of the paints contain aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are considered carcinogenic. Benzene is perhaps the best known of these, but it is not allowed as a solvent in Austria. However, benzene can still be found in some paints and varnishes due to impurities. But even those who have nothing to do with paints and varnishes will encounter benzene: it is mainly contained in cigarette smoke and of course in gasoline, but can also escape from open chimneys. According to the current state of knowledge, there is no threshold below which benzene can act Not is harmful.

There are also polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also produced in combustion processes, in road traffic and as intermediate products in the production of, among other things, plastics, paints and PVC. Many of them are carcinogenic.

Carcinogens in food

Charred meat, mold, additives: This part of "Risk of cancer in your own four walls" deals with a topic that has caused a lot of discussion in recent years - the question of whether the risk of cancer lurks in our food.

That is how unhealthy mold is

"Stay away from moldy food!" - this is often drummed into children. But not all molds are created equal: So-called cultivated molds, as in certain types of cheese (e.g. blue cheese), are harmless to health. However, there are also types of fungus that produce toxins, some of which are even carcinogenic: For example, Aspergillus fungi secrete carcinogenic toxins. Aspergillus flavus occurs mainly on nuts and figs and can cause liver tumors due to its poison aflatoxin B1. Other types of mold that attack grain, coffee beans or legumes, for example, can produce carcinogenic substances. In addition to their carcinogenic properties, mold toxins can also be responsible for many other health problems: the skin, kidneys and the immune system are just some of the points of attack for such toxins. Should you discover mold on food, it is advisable to dispose of the entire product: Because the microscopic filaments of mold are also there where you cannot see them. Cutting away the moldy area is therefore usually not enough.

Be careful when grilling

There is a widespread belief that grilled, fried and smoked foods with burned spots can be carcinogenic. Burning actually creates carcinogenic substances, especially so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzopyrene. To date, it has not been possible to prove that these substances contribute directly to the development of cancer in humans, but this proof is difficult to provide because many factors play a role in the development of cancer. Numerous factors lead to cancer development only after years or decades - or promote the growth of a tumor that has developed elsewhere, which is also very difficult to prove scientifically. However, it is likely that more frequent consumption of strongly grilled, fried and smoked foods increases the risk of cancer. In this context, gastric and intestinal cancer has been mentioned several times. More on this in the article "Healthy grilling".

Risk of cancer from fats

High-fat and low-fiber foods are also mentioned again and again in connection with cancer. However, scientific studies show no connection between the total amount of fat ingested through food and the risk of cancer - on the other hand, there are strong indications that animal fat in particular and an excess of red and processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer, for example. And: A high intake of saturated fatty acids and fat in general seems to bring a higher risk of breast cancer in women after the menopause.

The alcohol and the cancer

It is well known that regular and high alcohol consumption is unhealthy. Alcohol can even increase the risk of cancer. There is clear evidence that high alcohol consumption (more than two alcoholic drinks per day for men or more than one drink for women) increases the risk of cancer. The carcinogenic and carcinogenic effects mainly affect the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus and, in men, the intestines. The risk of liver cancer also appears to be increasing. Since frequent alcohol consumption is often associated with smoking, one should also know that alcohol, together with tobacco smoke, increases the risk of tumors in the throat and mouth area.

Are Microwaves Cancer Waves?

The microwave also has a public reputation as a source of cancer. Microwaves are said to have negative effects on food and health. With regard to the preservation of vitamins and nutrients, the most important thing is not to "burn" the food, i.e. not to overheat it. It seems, therefore, that proper use of the microwave - as well as gentle warming up in the pan - does not lead to any loss of nutrients and no carcinogenic substances arise. With every microwave you should make sure that the opening flap and all seals are intact so that no microwave radiation can escape, which could possibly cause damage by heating up body tissue. Overall, however, it depends more on what goes into the microwave: Therefore, pay attention to the contents of finished products for the microwave, especially to fats, salt and additives. Even if a direct carcinogenic effect is often not scientifically proven - too much of these substances should not be healthy.

Radioactive hazard?

Radioactivity is currently on everyone's lips: Radioactivity occurs - in very small quantities - in food. Wild berries and mushrooms in particular store radioactive substances; even 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster, they still have increased radioactivity (especially in the form of cesium-137). In this country, foods are regularly checked for this. Game meat that does not come from animals kept in cages, as well as chestnut boletus, sometimes have increased radioactivity, but - provided that these foods are only consumed in small quantities - normally do not lead to an increased health risk.

Personal care, air fresheners & cleaning agents

Shower gels, perfumes, incense sticks, cleaning agents: believing that we are doing something good for us, we sometimes resort to products that are harmful to health. This part of "Risk of cancer in your own four walls" provides information about some products that are related to cancer.

Perfumes and cosmetics

Various cosmetics and other "beauty products" are repeatedly suspected of containing carcinogenic substances. Synthetic musk fragrances (artificial substitutes for the natural musk fragrance from the musk deer gland) are often found in cosmetics, hair care products, shower gels, soaps and perfumes, but also in sprays and incense sticks to improve indoor air quality. With some musk compounds a connection with cancer has been proven, for others there is strong evidence of possible cancer-promoting effects. A study commissioned by the Austrian Ministry of Health recommends avoiding artificial fragrances as much as possible and, above all, protecting pregnant women, newborns and infants from them


Chemical mothballs are also linked to cancer. In fact, naphthalene, which is now a little less common, is one of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and is therefore potentially carcinogenic. If naphthalene is not used in mothballs, another chemical club is used: paradichlorobenzene (PDCB), also a suspect in terms of carcinogenesis. So if you want to be on the safe side when it comes to health, we recommend an old and tried-and-tested home remedy that the moths do not like at all, but are harmless to health: lavender.

Cleaning and cleaning products

Detergents and cleaning agents have to fulfill several tasks: kill bacteria, viruses and fungi, remove dirt particles and everything should also smell good. That is why many detergents and fabric softeners contain artificial musk fragrances.

For the freshness on the toilet there are, among other things, pelvic stones for the toilet: These contain dichlorobenzenes, which are also contained in the newer mothballs and whose connection with cancer is currently being investigated, as there are indications of possible carcinogenic effects. Other ingredients that are not to be trifled with are formaldehyde, tri- and dichloroethanes. A carcinogenic potential seems to be scientifically proven for formaldehyde in higher concentrations.

When it comes to detergents and cleaning agents, the picture for the consumer is rather complicated: although many ingredients are marked as hazardous to health, there are insufficient or contradicting data on possible carcinogenic or carcinogenic effects. Detergents and solvents, but also cosmetics, can be a source of volatile organic compounds, some of which are classified as potentially carcinogenic. Unfortunately, the data on this is still insufficient. The Ministry of the Environment therefore recommends avoiding aggressive disinfectants, drain and oven cleaners and cleaning agents containing solvents (especially those in spray form and with fine atomization). After all, there are also milder alternatives for cleaning and care products - which are also usually less harmful to the environment.

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Dr. med. Peter Mahlknecht

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