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Exposure to tobacco smoke and certain chemicals can greatly increase your risk for getting lung cancer. Nearly 90 percent of all lung cancers are due to cigarette smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Inhaling harmful, cancer-causing substances, or carcinogens, damages the cells that line your lungs. Examples of these carcinogens include:

  • cigarette smoke
  • asbestos
  • radon

At first, your body may be able to repair itself. With repeated exposure, however, your cells become increasingly damaged. Over time, the cells begin to act abnormally and grow uncontrollably. This is how cancer can develop.

Read on to learn about the lifestyle and environmental factors that can cause lung cancer.


Smoking tobacco is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. Tobacco and tobacco smoke contain more than 7,000 chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic. Examples of carcinogenic chemicals contained in tobacco smoke are nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.

Inhaling the chemicals in a cigarette immediately triggers a change in lung tissue. Initially, your body may be able to repair the damage, but its ability to repair decreases as exposure continues. The more frequent and the longer you smoke, the greater your chance for lung cancer.

Radiation therapy to the chest

Radiation therapy used to treat other cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer may increase your risk for lung cancer. This risk is higher if you smoke.

Secondhand smoke

Even if you don’t smoke, being exposed to secondhand smoke can increase your risk for lung cancer. This exposure can occur at any place you spend time, such as:

  • home
  • work
  • restaurants
  • bars

According to the CDC, each year between 2005 and 2009, about 7,300 adults in the United States who never smoked died from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke.


Radon is a gas that occurs naturally with the breakdown of uranium in rocks and soil. It’s odorless, colorless, and tasteless.

This gas can seep into building foundations and into living and working spaces. Radon is difficult to detect and you could be exposed without knowing it.

The effects of radon present an increased risk to people who smoke as opposed to those who don’t smoke. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the CDC.


Asbestos is an industrial material used in construction for insulation and as a fire retardant. When the material is disturbed, small fibers become airborne and can be inhaled. You’re at a greater risk for developing lung cancer if you’re exposed to asbestos on a regular basis.

Other chemicals

Other chemical exposures can raise your risk for lung cancer. Some examples are:

  • arsenic
  • beryllium
  • cadmium
  • vinyl chloride
  • nickel compounds
  • chromium compounds
  • coal products
  • mustard gas
  • chloromethyl ethers
  • diesel exhaust


Current research suggests that if a member of your immediate family has had lung cancer, you may have a slightly higher risk for developing the disease. Immediate family includes the following relations:

  • mother
  • father
  • sibling
  • aunt
  • uncle
  • grandparent

This elevated risk is true even if you don’t smoke. It’s unclear whether genetics causes lung cancer or merely increases your susceptibility to it.


According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer mostly occurs in older adults. The average age at the time of diagnosis is about 70. The older you are, the longer you have been exposed to harmful chemicals. This longer exposure increases your risk for cancer.


A balanced diet provides your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs to maintain good health. If you don’t eat a diverse mix of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables, you may have an increased risk for lung cancer. This is especially true if you smoke tobacco.

Past lung diseases

You may be at a greater risk for developing lung cancer if you have a history of chronic diseases that affect the lungs.

Past lung diseases can cause inflammation and scarring in the lungs. Examples of these diseases include:

  • tuberculosis
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • chronic bronchitis
  • emphysema

In the early stages, lung cancer may not have any complications. However, complications can arise as lung cancer progresses.

Some complications include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • hemoptysis, or bloody sputum
  • pneumonia
  • pain throughout the body where the cancer has spread
  • neuropathy, if tumors compress surrounding nerves

Lung cancer can’t always be prevented. This is especially true if you’re a nonsmoker. However, one of the best ways to prevent lung cancer is to not smoke or to quit smoking if you do smoke.

Reducing your exposure to radon and diesel exhaust can also help prevent lung cancer.

Eating a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables and getting enough vitamins and minerals can help improve your overall health. Improving your overall health can help prevent developing lung cancer.

Smoking tobacco products is the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer. However, other environmental and personal health history factors can increase the chances of developing lung cancer. Sometimes the cause is unknown.

Talk to your doctor if you believe you may be at risk for lung cancer or are experiencing symptoms of lung cancer.