Every mutagenic substance is also carcinogenic

Carcinogenic substances in everyday life


Information on the author and / or the specialist advisor can be found at the end of the article.

A large number of substances can trigger or promote cancer in higher doses. They are called "carcinogens", which is synonymous with "carcinogens". A whole series of these substances has meanwhile been identified and determined more precisely.

The classification of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) are decisive for the classification as carcinogenic in humans, whereby the DFG reports its results annually as a list of maximum workplace concentrations (MAK) and list of the Biological Working Material Tolerance Values ​​(BAT). * The IARC divides the substances into groups, the DFG into categories - whereby the first group or category contains the substances that have been proven to cause cancer in humans or that are to be regarded as carcinogenic on the basis of animal experiments and which can be assumed to contribute to the risk of cancer. [1, 2]

However, the classification in group 1 says nothing about the actual cancer risk associated with the substances. The classification just means that there is solid evidence that they can cause cancer. The substances in a group are therefore not all equally dangerous. In the following, we provide an overview of the most important and best-known cancer-causing substances (all from the first group or category):

Overview of cancer-causing substances

Aflatoxins are fungal toxins that are found in certain types of mold. They damage the liver and can greatly increase the risk of developing liver cancer, even with low but regular intake. [3]

Aflatoxins were detected for the first time in the Aspergillus flavus mold, which occurs in soil, rotting vegetation as well as hay and grain. However, it can also be found in foods such as peanuts, poppy seeds, dried fruits and spices if the products are stored incorrectly.

Alcoholic drinks
Regular alcohol consumption increases the risk of certain types of cancer, although there is usually a clear dose-effect relationship: the more alcohol is consumed, the higher the risk of the disease. There are clear indications of an increased risk of cancer through alcohol consumption, for example for head and neck tumors, breast cancer and colon cancer. [4] You can find more about alcohol consumption and cancer on this page: http://www.krebsgesellschaft.de/onko-internetportal/basis-informationen-krebs/bewusst-leben/alkohol-und-krebsreservungen.html


Asbestos fibers are responsible for around 80 percent of occupational cancers. These include mesothelioma - an otherwise rather rare form of cancer of the pleura and peritoneum - as well as lung cancer, larynx cancer and very likely ovarian cancer. [5, 6]

Asbestos is a collective term for various fibrous minerals. They are fireproof and work well for insulation and insulation material. Asbestos was used in a wide variety of ways: in brake and clutch linings, as asbestos cement in buildings, in insulation panels and floor coverings, to insulate pipes, heating systems, electrical appliances, in fireproof fabrics and much more.

Asbestos is carcinogenic in humans. Long, thin fibers split off as a result of wear and tear and during processing, and they reach the lungs through breathing.

Since the import and use of asbestos are now banned, theoretically, demolition and renovation work is particularly dangerous today. Special protective measures and the proper disposal of the asbestos products are therefore important. Appropriate work in your own household should be left to specialist companies. "Unfortunately, although the carcinogenic potential of asbestos fibers has been known for many decades, asbestos is still used as a building material in many emerging countries around the world," explains Prof. Dennis Nowak from the Institute and Polyclinic for Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine at the University of Munich. He therefore considers a worldwide asbestos ban to be urgently necessary. “The lobbying of the asbestos industry is working against it; tens of thousands of deaths are at risk - irresponsible, ”says Nowak.

Benzene / diesel
Benzene can cause leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. [5, 6] It is obtained from coal or petroleum. The small, ring-shaped molecule - the simplest aromatic hydrocarbon - is an important raw material in the chemical industry. Therefore, workers in some industries were particularly exposed to this hazardous substance.

Benzene is also added to motor fuels and is released into the air with vehicle exhaust gases. Cigarette smoke also contains benzene.

All engine exhaust contains a variety of gaseous and particulate substances, including the following. also polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). For the carcinogenic effect, it is probably not the PAHs but rather the tiny soot particles in the diesel exhaust that are decisive. [7] These can get into the lungs when inhaled and cause cancer there. In the exhaust gases from old or unfiltered diesel engines, the proportion of solid particles (soot) is greater than in other engines.

Since diesel soot occurs mainly in the exhaust gases of motor vehicles, it is mainly people with relevant professions and in urban areas that are exposed to it.

Sex hormones: estrogens and progestins
Estrogens and progestins are components of many hormonal contraceptives and hormone therapies for menopausal symptoms. The IARC classifies the following therapies or combinations of active substances as carcinogenic (group 1): [5]

  • Estrogen therapy in menopause (increased risk of uterine cancer and ovarian cancer)
  • Estrogen-progestin therapy in menopause (increased risk of breast cancer, uterine cancer)
  • Estrogen-progestin combinations as oral contraceptives (increased risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer)

However, the IARC also points out that, in addition to the negative effects, there are also positive effects of these hormones. So increase z. B. Contraceptives with estrogen-progestin combinations reduce the risk of developing breast cancer and cervical cancer, but at the same time lower the risk of uterine cancer and ovarian cancer. The personal risk also depends on the duration and intensity of taking the medication. [8] Therefore, every woman should weigh the benefits and risks before taking the active ingredients or combinations and, if necessary, discuss them with her doctor.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) are a class of organic substances consisting of complex mixtures of several hundred chemical compounds. They arise from the (incomplete) combustion of organic materials. PAHs are a component of fossil fuels - such as coal or mineral oil - and are released through vehicle and industrial exhaust gases. However, PAHs can also be found in a large number of products such as plastics, elastomer or rubber materials, lacquers, paints or other coatings. Significant amounts are also found in cigarette smoke. For example, they can cause lung, larynx, skin, stomach or colon cancer. [9]

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also formed during the preparation of meat or sausage, for example when grilling, roasting, roasting, baking and drying in direct contact with an open flame or smoke gases. When grilling, this happens especially when fat, meat juice or marinade drip into the charcoal and the grilled sausage or cutlet is smoked. [10]

Since the IARC, after evaluating more than 800 studies, has found a connection between the consumption of processed meat and the development of colon cancer, among other things, it has classified these foods as carcinogenic (group 1). [8] Processed meat is understood to mean meat products that have been processed into sausage, for example, and / or have been preserved or changed in taste through curing, smoking or in some other way. The IARC also points out the carcinogenic effect of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but draws attention to the fact that the exact mechanisms of the carcinogenic effect have not yet been scientifically clarified. [11].

Four important PAHs are benzo (a) pyrene, benz (a) anthracene, benzo (b) fluoranthene and chrysene. In analyzes, often only the content of benzpyrene is examined, the proportion of which is relatively high at around ten percent in a PAH mixture, which is why benzpyrene is also referred to as the PAH lead substance. According to the German meat regulation, it must not exceed a maximum of one microgram. When grilling with charcoal, ten times the amount of benzopyrene is produced in the outer layer of the food, and when roasting over a wood fire even 200 times as much. [10]

Heavy metals
Some heavy metals are essential as trace elements in small amounts. In higher concentrations, some can be toxic or carcinogenic. Heavy metals are used industrially in a variety of ways and thus end up in the workplace and the environment. Cadmium, chromium (in its hexavalent form), nickel and the semimetal arsenic or compounds of these elements are either proven to be carcinogenic in humans or, based on animal experiments, to be carcinogenic according to the IARC and the MAK Commission of the German Research Foundation. [1, 2]

Arsenic used to be z. B. used in paints and pesticides. Today it is released in the workplace during semiconductor manufacturing. Arsenic compounds in the air come mainly from thermal power plants. In water, the element can also be of natural origin; some mineral springs contain high concentrations of arsenic. This can cause lung cancer and, less often, skin cancer. [5, 6]

Cadmium mainly causes lung cancer. [5] In industry it occurs mainly in the form of dust and smoke, e.g. B. in the production of batteries, alloys and color pigments. The most important non-occupational source of cadmium is cigarette smoke.

Chrome and nickel
Chromium (VI) and nickel mainly cause lung cancer and are mainly found in the metal industry. [12] So contain z. B. Fumes generated during welding often include these two elements.


Minimize risks through laws and regulations

Some substances (e.g. dioxins) have been greatly reduced in the environment through technical and legal measures. Others were banned, such as chlorinated hydrocarbon PCP (pentachlorophenol). Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, used as plasticizers in plastics, as additives for paints and sealants, etc.), which are suspected of causing cancer, are also prohibited.

On the other hand, not all possible risks have been identified with certainty. For example, when experts say that oak and beechwood dust can cause tumors of the nasal and paranasal sinuses, that does not mean that dust from other types of wood is harmless, just that insufficient evidence has been found. Of course, as is the case with many other substances, those people who deal with the corresponding hazardous substances every day in their job are at risk.

In addition to the substances listed here, there are many other substances as well as carcinogenic gases and rays. The complete lists of the IARC can be found here: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/; the list of MAK and BAT values ​​can be viewed here:



* Since the list of MAK and BAT values ​​only contains working substances, the two lists are not necessarily identical.


(red / kvk / pin)


Expert advice:

Prof. Dr. med. Dennis Nowak, Institute and Polyclinic for Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine, WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health, University of Munich Hospital http://www.klinikum.uni-muenchen.de/Institut-und-Poliklinik-fuer-Arbeits- Social and environmental medicine / de / about_uns / employees / nowak / index.html



[1] German Research Foundation (DFG): List of MAK and BAT values ​​2015. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9783527694983.ch3/pdf

[2] IARC: Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk in Humans: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/

[3] Aflatoxin. http://flexikon.doccheck.com/de/Aflatoxin

[4] Baan et al., Carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages, The Lancet Oncology, Volume 8, No. 4, p292-293, April 2007

[5] IARC: List of Classifications by cancer sites with sufficient or limited evidence in humans, Volumes 1 to 114: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/Table4.pdf

[6] Petersen, Erik: The International Cancer Research Agency (IARC): Cancer is largely an environmental disease and is preventable. In: environment · medicine · society. 28, No. 1, 2015, pp. 7–9, http://www.umg-verlag.de/umwelt-medizin-gesellschaft/115pet.pdf

[7] IARC: Diesel Engine Exhaust Carconogenic, http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2012/pdfs/pr213_E.pdf

[8] IARC Monographs Program Finds Combined Estrogen-Progestogen Contraceptives and Menopausal Therapy are Carcinogenic to Humans, Press Release 165, July 29, 2005, http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2005/pr167 .html

[9]. Federal Environment Agency: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons - Harmful to the Environment! Toxic! Unavoidable? https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/publikation/long/4372.pdf

[10] ONKO Internet portal: Do not let anything char while grilling. http://www.krebsgesellschaft.de/onko-internetportal/basis-informationen-krebs/bewusst-leben/basis-informationen-krebs-bewusst-leben-ernaehrung/beim-grillen-nich.html

[11] IARC: Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat, http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114.pdf

[12] Nowak, D, Huber, R.:. Lung cancer due to work influences (except asbestos). Pulmonologist 2015, 12: 317-324]



more on the subject

Cancer information service: environmental toxins - pollutants in food, household, work and the environment. Do they affect cancer development? https://www.krebsinformationsdienst.de/vorbeugung/risiken/umweltgifte.php

Last content update on: 10.11.2015

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