Canadian Cancer Society logo

Lung cancer

You are here: 

Risk factors for lung cancer

Any substance or condition that increases cancer risk is referred to as a risk factor. The most important risk factor for developing lung cancer is smoking. However, most cancers are the result of many risk factors.

*Risk factors are generally listed in order from most significant to least significant. In most cases, it is impossible to rank the relative significance of individual risk factors with absolute certainty.

The risk of developing lung cancer increases with age. More than half of all newly diagnosed lung cancer cases occur among people aged 70 years or older. Men develop lung cancer slightly more often than women.

The following factors are known to increase the risk of developing lung cancer.

Smoking tobacco

Smoking tobacco, particularly cigarettes, is the main cause of lung cancer. Tobacco smoke contains many harmful chemicals that can cause cancer (are carcinogenic). Smoking affects a person’s health and causes genetic changes in the cells of the lung that lead to the development of lung cancer.

Smoking is related to more than 85% of lung cancer cases in Canada. The risk of developing lung cancer is influenced by how long a person smoked, their age when they started smoking and the number of cigarettes smoked each day. When smoking is combined with other risk factors, the risk of lung cancer is increased.

Other types of tobacco products such as low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes, pipes, cigars, herbal cigarettes, hookahs and chewing tobacco also cause cancer and are not considered safe.

Back to top

Second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke is what smokers exhale and what rises from a burning cigarette, pipe or cigar. It is also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or involuntary or passive smoking.

Second-hand smoke contains the same chemicals as smoke that is actively inhaled. People exposed to second-hand smoke have an increased risk of lung cancer. Second-hand smoke is a main risk factor for lung cancer among non-smokers. No amount of exposure to second-hand smoke is safe.

Back to top

Radon

Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in rocks and soil. In the outdoors, radon gas is diluted by fresh air, so it is not usually a concern. But radon can seep into a home or building through dirt floors or cracks in basement foundations. It may reach unsafe levels in enclosed, poorly ventilated homes or buildings because of seepage into the basement. Breathing in radon gas can damage cells that line the lungs.

Radon exposure increases the risk of lung cancer. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer in smokers.

The risk of developing lung cancer depends on how much radon a person is exposed to, how long they are exposed as well as whether or not they smoke. The risk from radon is much higher in people who smoke than in those who don't.

Back to top

Asbestos

Asbestos is group of minerals that occur naturally. Asbestos has been widely used in building materials and many industries. Exposure to asbestos fibres in the air that people breathe increases the risk of lung cancer.

The risk of asbestos exposure is highest for people who work with asbestos, such as miners or those who work with it in manufacturing.

Studies have shown that the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is especially hazardous. People who are exposed to asbestos and also smoke are at even greater risk of developing lung cancer.

Back to top

Outdoor air pollution

There is strong evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. The risk for lung cancer increases with more exposure to air pollution. Pollutants in the air vary from place to place depending on sources of emissions in the area. Emissions can also move in from other regions.

Researchers have shown that individual components of outdoor air pollution cause cancer. These components include diesel engine exhaust, benzene, particulate matter and some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Back to top

Occupational exposure to chemical carcinogens

The risk of lung cancer is higher among people who work in certain industries or have certain occupations. These are rare causes of lung cancer because normally a person would only come across these chemicals in large amounts if they worked with them. In general, for many of these substances, the risk of developing lung cancer is even higher for people who smoke.

Occupational exposure to the following cancer-causing chemicals increases the risk of lung cancer:

  • arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds
  • beryllium and beryllium compounds
  • cadmium and cadmium compounds
  • chemicals used in rubber manufacturing, iron and steel founding and painting
  • chloromethyl ethers and bischloromethylether
  • chromium (VI) compounds
  • cobalt-tungsten carbide
  • diesel engine exhaust
  • mustard gas
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • radioactive ores such as uranium and plutonium
  • silica dust and crystalline silica
  • some nickel compounds

People who work in rubber manufacturing, iron and steel founding and painting have a higher risk of lung cancer. These industries use many chemicals, but the exact ones that increase the risk of lung cancer are not known

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) increase the risk of lung cancer. People can have occupational exposure to PAHs through chimney sweeping, coal gasification, coke production, using coal tar pitches (such as in roofing and paving) and aluminum production.

Back to top

Personal or family history of lung cancer

People who have had lung cancer have an increased risk of developing a second lung cancer.

First-degree relatives (siblings, children or parents) of people who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of developing lung cancer themselves. The increased risk among first-degree relatives could be due to a number of factors, such as shared behaviours (like smoking) or living in the same place where there are carcinogens (like radon).

Studies of families with a strong history of lung cancer have found that the increased risk might be due to a mutation in a lung cancer gene. Other studies have shown that the risk of lung cancer in a family increases if a family member developed the disease at an early age.

Back to top

Arsenic

Drinking water with high levels of arsenic increases the risk of developing lung cancer. The risk is further increased in people who smoke.

Back to top

Previous lung disease

People who have had lung diseases or conditions that scar the lungs have an increased risk of lung cancer. Examples of these conditions include:

  • tuberculosis (TB) – a lung infection spread by inhaling tuberculosis bacteria
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a long-term disease (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema) that damages the lungs and is usually caused by smoking
  • lung infection caused by Chlamydophila pneumoniae

Back to top

Exposure to radiation

The risk of lung cancer increases for people who have had previous exposure to ionizing radiation.

People who have been treated with radiation therapy to the chest for cancers such as Hodgkin lymphoma or breast cancer are at increased risk for lung cancer. The risk is further increased in people who smoke.

People in Japan who were exposed to ionizing radiation during atomic bomb explosions are at greater risk of developing lung cancer.

Back to top

Indoor burning of coal

Indoor burning (combustion) of solid fuels such as coal has been linked to lung cancer. Cooking and heating with coal on open fires or traditional stoves results in high levels of indoor air pollution, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Indoor smoke contains a range of health-damaging pollutants. There is sufficient evidence that indoor combustion of coal increases the risk of lung cancer.

Back to top

Weakened immune system

People with a weakened immune system have an increased risk of developing lung cancer.

The immune system can be weakened by drugs that suppress the immune system (called immunosuppressants).These drugs are used to prevent rejection of an organ after a transplant.

HIV infection and AIDS can also weaken the immune system. People with HIV/AIDS have a higher risk of developing many types of cancer.

Back to top

Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus) is an autoimmune disorder. Lupus can affect various parts of the body and cause inflammation of the skin, joints, blood vessels, nervous system and internal organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys. People with lupus have a higher risk for lung cancer.

Back to top

Possible risk factors

The following factors have some association with lung cancer, but there is not enough evidence to say they are known risk factors. Further study is needed to clarify the role of these factors for lung cancer.

Smoking marijuana

The evidence suggesting a link between long-term smoking of marijuana and cancer is not as strong or as comprehensive as the evidence linking tobacco and cancer. Some studies have found an increased risk of cancer with long-term recreational smoking of marijuana.

Indoor burning of wood

The evidence shows that there is a potential risk of lung cancer from burning wood indoors. Indoor burning (combustion) of solid fuels such as wood results in high levels of indoor air pollution, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.

High-temperature frying

The evidence shows that cooking oil emissions from high-temperature frying (such as deep-frying, pan-frying and stir-frying) are probably carcinogenic to humans.Some studies have shown an increased risk for lung cancer in people who fry foods in oil at high temperatures. The risk is influenced by the frequency and duration of high-temperature frying.

Diet

More research is needed to clarify the role that diet plays in lung cancer risk. Some studies have reported a decreased risk of developing lung cancer in people who eat a diet high in vegetables and fruit. Some studies have shown a reduced risk of lung cancer with a high intake of selenium. Other studies have shown that smokers who take beta carotene supplements may have an increased risk of lung cancer.

Physical inactivity

People who are not physically active may be at a higher risk for lung cancer, but the research is not conclusive.

Occupational exposure to certain chemicals

There may be some association between lung cancer and occupational exposure to vinyl chloride, dioxin, cobalt-tungsten carbide, or strong inorganic acid mists, but more research is needed to be sure. Research to date does not provide a conclusive link between pesticides and cancer, but the evidence does suggest a possible association with lung cancer.

Removal of both ovaries

Some studies have suggested that removal of both ovaries (bilateral oophorectomy) may increase a woman's risk of developing lung cancer. More research is needed to understand this risk.

Back to top

Unknown risk factors

The following are factors for which there is not enough evidence or the evidence is inconclusive. In other words, it can't be determined for sure whether these risk factors are or are not associated with lung cancer.

Back to top

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about risks.

Stories

Lisa Hamel I’m living proof that one can lead a normal life after cancer.

Read Lisa's story

How can you stop cancer before it starts?

It's My Life! icon

Discover how your lifestyle choices can affect cancer risk and how you can take action with our interactive tool – It’s My Life!

Learn more