The best ways to prevent lung cancer are to avoid smoking and to limit your exposure to certain pollutants, such as radon. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself.
1. Don’t smoke
Cigarette smoking is unquestionably the single greatest controllable risk factor for lung cancer and the most common preventable cause of all premature deaths in the United States. Half of all smokers die prematurely of diseases related to smoking. While smoking cigars and pipes greatly increases the danger of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus, the risk of lung cancer is not as high as with cigarette smoking, because pipe and cigar smokers usually do not inhale as deeply or as frequently as cigarette smokers. The risk of lung cancer is greatest in those who start smoking at an early age and smoke the most cigarettes daily.
Because the risk of lung and other cancers gradually diminishes after people stop smoking, you can benefit from quitting at any age. The benefit in reducing the risk of lung cancer becomes evident after about five years. The risk of developing lung cancer continues to decrease the longer a person does not smoke, though it never falls as low as the risk level of a lifelong nonsmoker.
2. Limit exposure to radon
Many studies have examined the risk of lung cancer posed by radon in the home. A colorless, odorless gas formed naturally during the decay of uranium found in rocks and soil, radon can pollute the air of a home by entering through cracks or other openings, usually in the basement. Scientists estimate that approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year are related to radon.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends measuring radon levels in homes and reducing the levels when they exceed four picocuries per liter (pCi/L) over a year, a level estimated to be present in about 5 percent of American homes. Some critics disagree with this EPA recommendation, however, arguing that these levels of radon do not pose a significant risk and that attention should be focused on finding the homes with the highest levels.
To determine whether radon levels are high in your area, contact your local EPA office. Taking a radon measurement in an individual house, however, is the only definitive way to know the radon level. Several inexpensive radon detection kits are available in most hardware stores.
Etched-track or electret detectors are good choices; the best of these kits take measurements over a period of at least three months. The label on the kit should say that it meets EPA requirements or is certified by your state. If it is necessary to reduce radon levels in your home, contact a state-certified contractor or one who has passed the EPA’s Radon Contractor Proficiency Program.
What about dietary measures?
Because damage of DNA by free radicals is considered a cause of many types of cancer, researchers hoped that antioxidant supplements or an increased intake of antioxidant-rich foods might reduce the risk of lung cancer. But large studies show that smokers and others at increased risk for lung cancer who take beta-carotene supplements are significantly more likely to develop lung cancer than their counterparts who don’t take them. No dietary measures are currently known to reduce the risk of lung cancer. A number of agents show promise, however, and are under investigation in clinical trials.