Lifestyle-related factors and environmental agents causing cancer: an overview

Biomed Pharmacother. 2007 Dec;61(10):640-58. doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2007.10.006. Epub 2007 Nov 20.


The increasing incidence of a variety of cancers after the Second World War confronts scientists with the question of their origin. In Western countries, expansion and ageing of the population as well as progress in cancer detection using new diagnostic and screening tests cannot fully account for the observed growing incidence of cancer. Our hypothesis is that environmental factors play a more important role in cancer genesis than it is usually agreed. (1) Over the last 2-3 decades, alcohol consumption and tobacco smoking in men have significantly decreased in Western Europe and North America. (2) Obesity is increasing in many countries, but the growing incidence of cancer also concerns cancers not related to obesity nor to other known lifestyle-related factors. (3) There is evidence that the environment has changed over the time period preceding the recent rise in cancer incidence, and that this change, still continuing, included the accumulation of many new carcinogenic factors in the environment. (4) Genetic susceptibility to cancer due to genetic polymorphism cannot have changed over one generation and actually favours the role of exogenous factors through gene-environment interactions. (5) Age is not the unique factor to be considered since the rising incidence of cancers is seen across all age categories, including children, and adolescents. (6) The fetus is specifically vulnerable to exogenous factors. A fetal exposure during a critical time window may explain why current epidemiological studies may still be negative in adults. We therefore propose that the involuntary exposure to many carcinogens in the environment, including microorganisms (viruses, bacteria and parasites), radiations (radioactivity, UV and pulsed electromagnetic fields) and many xenochemicals, may account for the recent growing incidence of cancer and therefore that the risk attributable to environmental carcinogen may be far higher than it is usually agreed. Of major concern are: outdoor air pollution by carbon particles associated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; indoor air pollution by environmental tobacco smoke, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds such as benzene and 1,3 butadiene, which may particularly affect children and food contamination by food additives and by carcinogenic contaminants such as nitrates, pesticides, dioxins and other organochlorines. In addition, carcinogenic metals and metalloids, pharmaceutical medicines and some ingredients and contaminants in cosmetics may be involved. Although the risk fraction attributable to environmental factors is still unknown, this long list of carcinogenic and especially mutagenic factors supports our working hypothesis according to which numerous cancers may in fact be caused by the recent modification of our environment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology
  • Air Pollutants / toxicity
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Child
  • Diet
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Food Contamination
  • Humans
  • Leukemia / epidemiology
  • Life Expectancy
  • Life Style*
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Obesity / complications
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Oncogenic Viruses
  • Overweight / complications
  • Smoking / adverse effects


  • Air Pollutants
  • Environmental Pollutants