Lung Cancer Risk Factors | Allen Hospital, Waterloo IA

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What risk factors are involved with lung cancer?

Cigarette Smoking

Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. About 80% of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. The risk for lung cancer among smokers is many times higher than among non-smokers. The longer you smoke and the more packs a day you smoke, the greater your risk.

Secondhand Smoke

If you don't smoke, breathing in the smoke of others can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is thought to cause more than 7,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

Radon Exposure

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. You can't see, taste, or smell it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country, and is the leading cause among non-smokers.

Outdoors, there is so little radon that it is not likely to be dangerous. But indoors, radon can be more concentrated. Breathing it in exposes your lungs to small amounts of radiation. This may increase a person's risk of lung cancer.

Homes and other buildings in nearly any part of the United States can have high indoor radon levels (especially in basements).

Exposure to Asbestos

People who work with asbestos (such as in mines, mills, textile plants, places where insulation is used, and shipyards) are several times more likely to die of lung cancer. Lung cancer risk is much greater in workers exposed to asbestos who also smoke. It's not clear how much low-level or short-term exposure to asbestos might raise lung cancer risk.

People exposed to large amounts of asbestos also have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs). In recent years, government regulations have greatly reduced the use of asbestos in commercial and industrial products. It's still present in many homes and other older buildings, but it's not usually considered harmful as long as it's not released into the air by deterioration, demolition, or renovation.

Exposure to Other Cancer-Causing Agents in the Workplace

Other carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) found in some workplaces that can increase lung cancer risk include:

  • Radioactive ores such as uranium
  • Inhaled chemicals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride, nickel compounds, chromium compounds, coal products, mustard gas, and chloromethyl ethers
  • Diesel exhaust

The government and industry have taken steps in recent years to help protect workers from many of these exposures. But the dangers are still there, so if you work around these agents, be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.

Risk Factors You Cannot Change

  • Previous radiation therapy to the lungs — People who have had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers are at higher risk for lung cancer, particularly if they smoke.
  • Air pollution — In cities, air pollution (especially near heavily trafficked roads) appears to raise the risk of lung cancer slightly. This risk is far less than the risk caused by smoking, but some researchers estimate that worldwide about 5% of all deaths from lung cancer may be due to outdoor air pollution.
  • Personal or family history of lung cancer — If you have had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer. Brothers, sisters, and children of people who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age.