What, other than smoking, causes lung cancer?

There are other things besides cigarette smoking that can increase a person's risk for developing lung cancer. Other lifestyle-related risk factors include cigar smoking, pipe smoking and being exposed to tobacco by being near other smokers (also known as "secondhand smoke"). There are also occupational and environmental risk factors such as exposure to asbestos, radon and indoor pollution from wood burning. Some chronic lung diseases have also been associated with an increased risk for developing lung cancer, such as pulmonary fibrosis, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (a genetic lung disease), and tuberculosis. Ultimately, even though there are a variety of factors that can increase a person's risk for lung cancer, the single greatest thing you can do to prevent it is to avoid cigarette smoking!

Cigarettes are not the only cause of lung cancer; environmental factors such as second-hand smoke and radon exposure also increase risk. Also, workplace hazards such as asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust can increase your risk. The risk may be even higher if there is a family history of lung cancer and exposure to smoke and/or environmental risk factors.

After cigarette smoking, the second most common cause of lung cancer in the United States is exposure to radon, particularly when combined with cigarette smoking.

Radon is an invisible, odorless and radioactive gas found in rocks and soil. It forms when uranium breaks down. Radon problems have been identified in almost every state. This gas can enter homes from the soil under your home's foundation.

Your risk of lung cancer increases if you have been around high levels of radon in your home for a long period of time, according to the American Cancer Society.

You can measure the radon level in your home with a test kit sold in hardware stores. You can also hire a company to come to your home to check radon levels. The testing should be done more than once, with the results averaged together.

Another leading cause of lung cancer is coming into contact with cancer-causing chemicals, or carcinogens, at work. Asbestos is perhaps the best-known industrial substance associated with lung cancer. However, there are many others. They include uranium, arsenic and certain petroleum products.

Dr. Vijay K. Nuthakki, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Other than smoking, causes of lung cancer include: exposure to asbestos, radon and secondhand smoke. Patients with prior lung cancer are also at increased risk for lung cancer.

Dr. Claudia I. Henschke, MD
Diagnostic Radiologist

For the 10-15 percent of lung cancers that are diagnosed in nonsmokers, there are a number of potential causes:

  • Heavy exposure to asbestos, radon, uranium, arsenic and other carcinogens
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Heavy exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Lung scarring from past illness

Cigarette smoking is an obvious risk factor for lung cancer; but second-hand smoke exposure is also a factor, and there may be a genetic link. Watch disease prevention specialist William Li, MD, explain additional risk factors for lung cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.