Cancer and the Environment

​The relationship between cancer and the environment is complex. However, understanding key aspects of cancer can be valuable in understanding environmental contributions to cancer. 

This page provides general information and links to resources about cancer and the environment, including concerns about cancer rates in neighborhoods and communities (cancer cluster concerns). 

Local health departments work with the Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland Department of the Environment to evaluate cancer cluster concerns. The Maryland Department of the Environment provides support if suspected cancer clusters potentially involve environmental contaminants or concerns.

Learn about cancer

Highlights from Questions and Answers about Cancer: Causes and Clusters - Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2015:

What is cancer?

The term cancer refers to a group of over 100 diseases that begin when damaged cells in the body divide without control and eventually may invade other parts of the body.

Key points about cancer:

  •  Cancer is very common.
  •  Cancer causes are still not well understood.
  •  Lifestyle factors (such as smoking or other tobacco use, diet, obesity, and lack of exercise)   may account for a large number of cancers.
  •  The risk of developing cancer increases with age and varies with gender.
  •  Cancers diagnosed today are usually related to events that happened many years ago.

Is cancer caused by toxic substances in the environment?

Exposure to toxic substances, or carcinogenic (cancer causing) agents in occupational, community, and other setting are only known to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer deaths-about 4% from occupational exposures and 2% from environmental pollutants  (man-made and naturally occurring)1. That said, there are carcinogens which are proven to have an increased association with the development of cancer, for example, smoking has been proven to be a definitive cause of lung cancer. However, it is often not so simple; some carcinogens are associated with some cancers and not others, as is the case for radiation and benzene, which are risk factors for certain types of leukemia, but not for colon cancer2,3. As a result of cancer’s complex causes, we cannot immediately assume that cancers occurring in one place or at one time share a common cause.

Cancer Prevention at the Maryland Department of the Environment

Reducing Marylanders’ exposure to carcinogens is a component of many MDE programs. (Carcinogens are agents or exposures that can cause or contribute to the development of cancer.) Here are some examples:

Helpful Links - Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene


Other Resources

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
American Cancer Society

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