Contribution of environmental factors to cancer risk

Br Med Bull. 2003:68:71-94. doi: 10.1093/bmp/ldg023.


Environmental carcinogens, in a strict sense, include outdoor and indoor air pollutants, as well as soil and drinking water contaminants. An increased risk of mesothelioma has consistently been detected among individuals experiencing residential exposure to asbestos, whereas results for lung cancer are less consistent. At least 14 good-quality studies have investigated lung cancer risk from outdoor air pollution based on measurement of specific agents. Their results tend to show an increased risk in the categories at highest exposure, with relative risks in the range 1.5-2.0, which is not attributable to confounders. Results for other cancers are sparse. A causal association has been established between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer, with a relative risk in the order of 1.2. Radon is another carcinogen present in indoor air which may be responsible for 1% of all lung cancers. In several Asian populations, an increased risk of lung cancer is present in women from indoor pollution from cooking and heating. There is strong evidence of an increased risk of bladder, skin and lung cancers following consumption of water with high arsenic contamination; results for other drinking water contaminants, including chlorination by-products, are inconclusive. A precise quantification of the burden of human cancer attributable to environmental exposure is problematic. However, despite the relatively small relative risks of cancer following exposure to environmental carcinogens, the number of cases that might be caused, assuming a causal relationship, is relatively large, as a result of the high prevalence of exposure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / adverse effects
  • Arsenic / toxicity
  • Asbestos / toxicity
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Radon / toxicity
  • Risk Factors
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects
  • Water Purification
  • Water Supply


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Asbestos
  • Arsenic
  • Radon