The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released its “14th Report on Carcinogens.”
The department said that seven more substances have now been identified as causing cancer in humans, bringing the total up to 248.
You might expect industrial solvents used to make hydrofluorocarbon chemicals, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) to make the list (which it did), but the other additions might come as a surprise. They’re not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of carcinogens. . .
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The department classified “cobalt and cobalt compounds that release cobalt ions in vivo” as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” based on evidence gathered through animal experiments.1
Cobalt is a naturally occurring metal used most often in creating metal alloys for military and industrial applications. Unless you work with metal or have had problems with cobalt alloy surgical implants, you don’t have much to worry about.
The other five carcinogens, on the other hand, are all viruses…
Now, we’ve known for years that some viruses can lead to cancer, so this isn’t necessarily shocking news. In fact, according to a 2007 report published in the journal Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, viruses cause an estimated 15% of all human cancers worldwide.2
Viruses initially take hold in the body by entering living cells and “hijacking” the cells’ machinery to make more viruses. Some do this by inserting their own DNA or RNA into the host cell.
Once this happens, the infection can push the cell to become ever more mutated and unstable. This can eventually cause the cell to become cancerous.
But not every virus attacks every cell. Below are the five new viruses now classified as carcinogens, and how they affect the body.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a herpes virus that’s usually transmitted by saliva or bodily fluids. About 90% of adults worldwide carry it.3 Many people live with EBV and show no symptoms from it.
However, human, clinical and molecular studies show EBV can lead to four types of lymphoma, a type of cancer that starts in lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow or other cells known as lymphocytes. The four types are:
- Immune-suppression-related non-Hodgkin and
- Nasal type extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma
Epstein-Barr virus is also present in many cases of prostate cancer (see Issue #232).
Researchers believe EBV can lead to lymphoma and epithelial cancers because it weakens the immune system over time. (Epithelial cancers affect the tissue that lines the surfaces of blood vessels and organs throughout the body, such as some types of stomach cancer)
A weakened immune system can lead to the production of cancer-causing viral proteins. To make matters worse, your immune system, once weakened, isn’t able to effectively stop cells from mutating and spreading uncontrollably, the hallmark of cancer.
Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV)
Another strain of herpes virus, similar to EBV, is Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV).
It’s transmitted through saliva, sexual contact, contaminated organ transplants and/or blood transfusions. Like EBV, people can carry the virus and live totally normal, healthy lives.
KSHV causes cancer primarily in people with suppressed immune systems (AIDS patients, for example).
Research shows that approximately 90% of Kaposi sarcoma patients carry KSHV, and more than 100 human studies have shown a link between KSHV infection and Kaposi sarcoma.
Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV)
Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) was discovered in 2008. Researchers are still trying to understand how it spreads. It usually infects the skin, and healthy people continually shed infected cells, releasing them into the environment.
Clinical, epidemiological and molecular studies show that MCV causes Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive skin cancer, by integrating the viral DNA into the host cell and by expressing two MCV proteins. Only this mutated, integrated form of MCV leads to cancer.4
When Merkel cell carcinoma does occur, it’s usually in white elderly males and people with weakened immune systems.5 It usually starts as a single, painless, purple or bluish-colored lump on sun-exposed skin. To help protect yourself from MCV and Merkel cell carcinoma:
- Practice good hygiene;
- Protect your skin from natural and artificial sunlight; and
- Monitor your skin and consult a dermatologist if you notice changes.
Human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1)
Human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) is spread through contact involving bodily fluids, such as breastfeeding, sharing needles, infected organ transplants and sexual contact. Many people who carry this virus remain healthy and show no symptoms.
Multiple human studies show a link between HTLV-1 and adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATLL). ATLL is a rare cancer that infects the body’s T cells, specifically white blood cells known as CD4 T cells, which help to fight off infection.
More than nine out of ten people diagnosed with ATLL are infected with HTLV-1.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 90,000 people in the United States are infected with HTLV-1, but only a very small number of them ever develop virus-related cancer.6 It’s mainly people with weak or compromised immune systems who are at risk.
To reduce the risk of contracting HTLV-1, practice safer sex. Women who are infected should avoid breastfeeding.
Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1)
Approximately 1.2 million people in the United States carry human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) – the AIDS virus. It’s transmitted through blood, sexual contact, during pregnancy from mother to child and through breastfeeding.
There’s significant human evidence that HIV can lead to several different types of cancer, including. . .
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Cervical, anal and vaginal cancer
- Conjunctival eye cancer
- Non-melanoma skin cancer
Numerous studies in different populations provide evidence that people with HIV-1 have a higher risk for these cancers compared to uninfected people of the same age.7
Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cervical cancer are considered AIDS-defining cancers. A diagnosis of any of these three cancers means the HIV infection has progressed to AIDS.8
Researchers believe it’s not necessarily HIV-1 that mutates cells and leads to cancer, but rather the weakening of the immune system together with other cancer-causing viruses. Because the body is already unable to defend itself, cancer cells have a better chance of getting established and multiplying.
However, a person carrying HIV-1 can receive treatments such as highly antiretroviral therapy (HAART) and combination antiretroviral therapy (cART). These treatments reduce the level of HIV-1 in the blood and can substantially lower the risk of developing Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
To reduce the risk of HIV-1 infection, practice safe sex and do not share needles with another person. Seems like common sense advice to me, for cancer and any number of other reasons.