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How To Avoid Carcinogenic Chemicals in Everyday Life

Medically reviewed by Mark Levin, M.D.
Written by Ryan Chiu, M.D.
Posted on April 12, 2021

Avoiding carcinogens — cancer-causing chemicals — in your everyday life is an important part of cancer prevention. These toxic chemicals, which are linked to leukemia, represent cancer-related risk factors that you can control — unlike other risk factors that can’t be changed, such as your sex, genetics, or age.

For example, smoking is well known for increasing one’s odds of developing lung cancer. Drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time can increase your risk of cancer in the pancreas. Obesity can increase the risk of certain cancers as well. Sometimes, environmental factors like exposure to certain chemicals or pollutants can pose health risks and increase cancer likelihood.

“I’m worried about being exposed to things that cause cancer. I read up on these chemicals and try to stay away from them,” a MyLeukemiaTeam member said.

When risk factors — such as exposure to carcinogens — are within your control, you can take steps to make your day-to-day life a bit safer. The following is an overview of different carcinogenic chemicals that are linked to leukemia and how to avoid them.

Avoiding Benzene

Benzenes are colorless or light-yellow-colored liquids found in substances that you may often be exposed to, such as gasoline or tobacco smoke — even secondhand smoke. Some hydrocarbons, including benzene, are toxic because their molecules are shaped in a strong ring-like pattern. This makes them resistant to being broken down by the body, so they consequently can build up to toxic levels.

Fortunately, laws have been passed to limit the amount of benzene that can be put into gasoline and other substances. The Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency both have regulations for benzene. Still, there are steps you should take to protect yourself if you encounter substances that likely contain benzene.

Don’t Smoke

Benzenes enter the body when you breathe in air containing them. Cigarette smoke represents half of the total population’s exposure to benzenes, and it is by far the largest source of benzenes in the United States. Quitting smoking is one of the most significant ways to avoid carcinogens that can cause leukemia and many other cancers. If you don’t smoke, avoid starting.

Wear Recommended Protection

Benzenes can also be found in many household products, like glues, cleaning products, air fresheners, and some paint-removal products. Wearing recommended protective gear — such as respirators and masks — while handling these substances can help reduce your exposure to benzenes. If you deal with these compounds at work, there may be applicable national workplace standards regarding respirator use to help protect you.

Avoiding BPA

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is used to make plastic containers — such as water bottles — and some metal containers, such as those used for canned foods. Under certain conditions, small amounts of BPA from these containers can enter the food or drinks inside.

Here are some ways you can avoid BPA contamination as much as possible.

Use BPA-Free Products

Some products are labeled as BPA-free. Using BPA-free food containers, when possible, can lower your exposure to BPA. If a container is not labeled as BPA-free, check its recycling codes: Products marked with a 3 or a 7 are often made with BPA and should be avoided. Instead, try glass or steel containers for food storage.

Cutting back on the use of canned foods can also reduce the amount of BPA you may be exposed to.

Avoid Heated Containers

When containers made with BPA are heated to high temperatures, BPA can seep into the food or beverages within. When reheating food or drink, first transfer it to a glass or ceramic dish.

Avoiding Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde can be inhaled through air or absorbed through the skin when you touch liquids containing the chemical.

Formaldehyde is used in certain chemical labs, in manufacturing, and as a preservative in mortuaries. Lab technicians, some health care professionals, and people who work with cadavers or corpses may be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde. Others may breathe in air contaminated with formaldehyde when working with pressed wood products, car emissions, or fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves, wood stoves, and kerosene heaters.

Ventilate and Choose Wood Products Carefully

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends the use of exterior-grade wood products to reduce potential exposures to formaldehyde. You should also make sure that the ventilation systems in your home are working properly. Additionally, lowering humidity levels by using air conditioners and dehumidifiers can help to reduce formaldehyde exposure.

Avoiding Radiation

Radiation exposure has been shown to increase the risk of leukemia and a range of other cancers. Radiation is found in many forms. For example, X-rays represent a source of radiation found in many medical settings. Appliances that produce artificial light, such as tanning beds, are also sources of radiation.

Use Sun Protection

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is found naturally in sunlight. Although UV light is more commonly linked with skin cancers (e.g., melanoma), some studies have linked UV light with leukemia as well. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, no single method of sun protection can provide complete defense against harmful rays. To help reduce the health risks, you should:

  • Avoid sun exposure for long periods of time by staying indoors or sticking to shady spots.
  • Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) level of 30 or higher when you are going to be exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.
  • Cover up with clothing — especially articles made from tightly woven fabric — and other accessories, such as hats and sunglasses.

Avoiding Glyphosate

Glyphosate is commonly found in older herbicides or pesticides. Although glyphosate is concerning as a potential carcinogen, more recent testing has found that glyphosate levels in modern herbicides and pesticides are safe when used per proper instructions.

Follow Packaging Instructions

When using any products containing glyphosate, be sure to read and follow the directions to avoid risks.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. Members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.

What tips do you have for avoiding harmful chemicals in your day-to-day life? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyLeukemiaTeam.

Posted on April 12, 2021
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Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Ryan Chiu, M.D. obtained his medical degree from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in 2021. Learn more about him here.

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