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Unusual suspects: What science says causes cancer

More than 6,000 South African women are diagnosed annually with breast cancer (File photo)
Written by Wilma Stassen

From coffee to antiperspirant, everyday items are increasingly under scrutiny about whether they could cause cancer. Our Wilma Stassen reviews the evidence.

Don’t worry, your cup of morning coffee and the antiperspirant in your gym bag won’t give you cancer, but here are some of the things that might, according to research:

Name Description Does it cause cancer?
Obesity Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. It is believed that excess fat on the body causes inflammation, which leads to carcinogenesis. Yes
Certain types oral contraceptives The commonly used oestrogen-progestogen oral contraceptive is classified as a known carcinogen. Yes
Tanning beds Tanning beds emit ultraviolet radiation which causes cancer. Yes
Sunshine Ultraviolet A and B radiation is a well-known cause of skin cancer Yes
Hair straightener (Brazilian keratin type) Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and high levels of this chemical can be found in various hair straightening products. Probably carcinogenic
Frying Yet another reason to stay away from fried food. The emissions released from frying food are potentially carcinogenic. Probably carcinogenic

The jury is still out about whether these household items and everyday activities will increase your risk of cancer:

Name Description
Canned food and drinks Cans are sealed with an epoxy resin that contains BPA – a known carcinogen. However it is uncertain to what extent this chemical is transferred to the foodstuff in the can.
Cling wrap Household cling wrap has been tested by CANSA and found to be safe. However, many of the large rolls of cling wrap used to cover food products at retailers contain a plasticiser with carcinogenic properties.
Ginko biloba extract Used in many herbal supplements as a memory booster, ginko biloba was recently linked the development of liver and thyroid cancers, as well as nasal tumours in laboratory rats. Although the same result have not been confirmed in humans, experts are cautioning against its use.
Processed meat The food preservative, nitrite, is often used in the preparation of processed meats. Although low levels of nitrite are not harmful, concentrated levels might occur on on dried meat products.
Cosmetics Although the verdict is still out on whether or not cosmetics may be carcinogenic, Dr Albrecht raised his concern about varying standards and lack of regulation. Known carcinogens such as lead and formaldehyde have been found in some cosmetics.
Hair dye Earlier hair dye formulations contained high levels of carcinogins such as aromatic amines. Although the hair industry has reformulated their products to be safer, dyes contain as many as 5 000 chemicals, some of which may be carcinogenic to humans.
Stress Although stress itself has not been linked to cancer, it is believed to weaken the body’s natural defences which might make it vulnerable to the development of cancer cells.
Talcum powder Although there are no strong links between cancer and talcum powder, researchers have found a higher-than-normal rate of ovarian cancer in women who regularly use it in the genital area.
Cellphone, TV and radio waves Although there has been some research linking radiofrequency electromagnetic fields – emitted by wireless devices such as cellphones – to certain types of brain cancers, the WHO released a statement saying that the evidence is insufficient and classified is as being possibly carcinogenic.
Thermal invoice paper Contains BPA and a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found levels of BPA in people’s urine after they handled thermal invoice paper.


About the author

Wilma Stassen

Wilma Stassen is a reporter at Health-e News Service. She focuses on non-communicable diseases. Follow her on Twitter @Lawim


  • “A substantial body of evidence supports the conclusion that chronic inflammation can predispose an individual to cancer.” (Oncology Journal). A substantial body of evidence also exists to indicate that inflammation exists PRIOR to the development of obesity. (Find one study here: Perhaps, therefore, you should say that inflammatory conditions (rather than obesity) have been linked to a risk of cancer.

  • In response to M Kraft, the article quoted is very specifically directed towards metabolic syndrome. It would be incorrect to assume a direct causal relationship between the two factors, and also misleading to focus only on inflammatory conditions and exclude the many other reasons leading to obesity.

  • i work for a children cancer organisation called CHOC Childhood cancer foundation in Pretoria. everyday we come across devastated families whose children have been diagnosed with cancer our fight is to keep hope alive for these families with our provision of various support programs to lighten the burden that these disease can bring to your family life and your financial status. I myself communicate on a regular basis with medical doctors, nurses, awareness nurses and patients and my experience of traveling overseas and the high cancer toll in the USA it kind of makes sense that cancer is a lifestyle disease, i can agree on obesity, radiation and diets to cause cancer, i believe that even during pregnancy these three causes that i have mentioned contribute towards children born with cancerous cells. the rate at which cancer is growing in South Africa is equivalent to the rate at which technology and food modification is going… i have read a study on radiation and an experiment where they were collecting case studies on how many people living in tin housed shacked near power lines and railway stations were diagnosed with cancer as opposed to those who lived in brick and mortar housing away from railway stations and power lines… and it was discovered that indeed the radiation coming in through the zinc houses was too high and hence a lot of cancer cases were discovered… the study indicates something of importance..the more artificial our lifestyles become the more foreign cancer cells are developing in our bodies…we wont know everything even if most of these artificial items are aimed at assisting us and improving lives of convenience.. i think the more natural we live the better… which includes less driving, less electricity exposure, less use of technological items such as computers, mobile devices, microwaves, fridges, modified foods and lighting…i know it is a hard thing and may seem barbaric but it makes some sense if you think back about the life span of people in the times on no technological lifestyle versus the current life span.. it is just thoughts of ponder…

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