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Environmental causes

Biological, physical and chemical risk factors

Environmental causes

What is a carcinogen?

Your risk of cancer can increase through exposure to cancer-causing agents, also referred to as ‘carcinogens’. These agents may be biological (specific viruses or bacteria), physical (ultraviolet light, x-rays) or chemical. Only a minor fraction of chemicals cause cancer.

Many chemical carcinogens are well known and exposure is preventable, such as chemicals in asbestos or tobacco smoke. Some are less well recognised, such as alcohol.

As some are distinct from lifestyle choices (choosing to smoke, drink alcohol or engage in deliberate sun exposure), exposure to carcinogens may occur outside your control. Exposure may occur in the workplace, or in the wider environment through air, water or soil pollution. You may also be exposed to particular chemicals through the use of consumer products.

Involuntary exposure to carcinogens often comes to the public’s attention through reports in the media concerning particular issues (use of herbicides, contaminants of food, hazards associated with cosmetics etc). However, in all such instances, the level of cancer risk is rarely made clear. Such reports can cause alarm and confusion, even though there may be no risk or minimal risk.

DIY renovation is also very popular in Australia so it’s important to understand the risks of being exposed to carcinogens like asbestos. Cancer Council offers a free online course on DIY and asbestos. 

Access the KNOW asbestos eLearning course

This course is designed to give the DIY home renovator basic knowledge about asbestos, and the risks and safe practices when working with or removing small amounts of asbestos-containing material.

For more information on workplace cancers