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Massive Class of Chemicals Causing More Cancer Than Previously Thought, Study Shows

Researchers stressed the need for future studies to assess the risk of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon chemicals, inhaled by people grilling burgers, waiting in traffic or breathing smoke from a wood fire, noting that the total toxicity might not always be as simple as just adding up the toxicity of the individual compounds.

Around the world, regulators have long relied on one compound to assess a community’s lung cancer risk from a class of chemicals that we’re exposed to while grilling burgers, waiting in traffic, and breathing in wood smoke from a fire.

That compound — benzo(a)pyrene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) — however, only accounts for 11% of lung cancer risk associated with PAHs, MIT researchers found in a study published early September in GeoHealth.

Meanwhile, 17% of the PAH-linked cancer risk in the study came from the largely unregulated and under-studied breakdown products.

People can be exposed to PAHs in a variety of ways, from smoking to eating grilled food to breathing in tailpipe or wildfire emissions. Workers in coal plants, or those who use coal products, are considered especially at-risk to PAH exposure.

When people inhale PAH particles, the particles can travel deep into the lungs, causing cell mutations that can lead to lung cancer. Scientists are also concerned about exposure to PAHs through food and drinking water, as ingestion has been linked to birth defects and higher prevalence of developing breast, pancreatic, and colon cancers.