Carcinogens all around


These past months consumers not just in Thailand but around the globe have been alarmed by reports of the detection of carcinogens in many popular foods, including tapioca balls in pearl milk tea or the recent controversy surrounding Korean instant noodle.

Thailand's Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ill at ease with such revelations, especially about the popular Korean noodle packs, has collected several samples in Bangkok and sent them for analysis.

These developments have sparked a lot of questions among the public as to whether they need to completely avoid cancer-causing foods and whether their consumption is life-threatening.

According to cancer specialist Dr Chatchai Koowattanapaisan, for consumers to know what to shun to shield themselves against the malignancy, first they need to understand what carcinogens really mean.

"Carcinogens are chemical substances or exposures that cause the alteration on the cell level and, subsequently, bring about cancer," explained Dr Chatchai.

Carcinogens, however, do not cause acute reactions. Exposure to carcinogens involve several portals _ from eating cancer-causing foods to using products that release carcinogens such as poor-quality plastic food containers. And when the body is exposed to carcinogens, four important stages come into play.

"Initiation" is the first stage, according to the oncologist, when the body first receives carcinogenic agents from outside. The cancer-causing substances will then accumulate inside the body in the second stage called "promotion". The gathering of a large amount of carcinogens will then take the body to the third stage called "transformation" when the formation of pre-malignant cells begins. At this stage, even though pre-cancerous cells are formed, the body at this time will show no sign and symptom of cancer, which makes it very difficult to diagnose.

Make sure vegetables are washed thoroughly before cooking to avoid exposure to potential carcinogens from insecticides.

The fourth and final stage "progression" is the moment of truth when patients will be diagnosed as suffering cancer.

It is impossible to pinpoint the duration between each individual stage, said Dr Chatchai, as it depends on many contributing factors including the severity and concentration of carcinogens, the amount of carcinogens and the location in the body where carcinogens attack. Take cigarettes, for instance. Cigarettes contain over 100 types of carcinogens. One might start smoking at the age of 20 or 30 but the body might develop cancer at the age of 50 or 60.

"It is like the body gradually accumulates the abnormality inside until one day it explodes and becomes cancer," noted the specialist.

While we as consumers are mostly familiar with carcinogens found in foods, actually they are everywhere even in our changing lifestyle or eating habits. Certainly, insecticides found in fruits and vegetables abound with carcinogens. But an unknown killer like eating too much junk food that contains high levels of fat and carbohydrates can also increase the risk of developing cancer especially breast, colon and prostate cancer.

Processed foods are found to have more chances of containing carcinogens than fresh foods but again, it depends on the type of preservatives used during food processing. In the past, nitrosamine _ a type of chemical preservative _ was widely used at a very high amount to enable food to stay fit for consumption for longer periods. But today, several healthcare organisations have strictly controlled the amount of nitrosamine used in the manufacturing of processed food. Grilled meat is also found to contain benzo(a)pyrene, a type of carcinogen which is a product of incomplete combustion.

The terrible news about carcinogens is that cancer-causing agents are not just found in edible goods. Non-food products such as plastic food containers or even strong sunlight can also be labelled carcinogens too.

''Bad-quality plastic food containers, if used with extremely cold or hot food, might release carcinogens and contaminate the food. So if you opt for plastic food containers, I would recommend those with carcinogen-free labelling,'' commented the cancer specialist.

And if any products are found to contain carcinogens, consumers should avoid eating or using them as best as they possibly can.

Cigarettes contain over 100 types of carcinogens.

''It is not possible for consumers to examine and analyse products available in the market to find out whether they contain carcinogens. On the other hand, concerned governmental organisations should be responsible for the investigation to make sure that consumers are safe to some extent,'' the doctor said.

Cigarettes, added Dr Chatchai, are one of the most dangerous carcinogens and encouraged people not to smoke. Another source of carcinogens are alcoholic beverages and they should also be avoided. And if you need to buy fruits and vegetables from supermarket, make sure they are rinsed and washed thoroughly to get rid of insecticides before cooking or eating them.

And when it comes to prevention against cancer, Dr Chatchai suggested some certain rules of thumb. Even though some might be easier said than done, they are indeed a stepping stone to cancer-free life.

''Better eat fresh food than processed food. And better eat readily cooked food than instant food,'' advised the oncologist. ''Also do not forget to have regular workout, always maintain suitable body weight and be sure to eat five food groups every day, especially fibre.''

''It is also vital to cut out stress as it can also trigger cancer,'' the doctor concluded.

''Last but not least, have enough rest as melatonin that the body releases during slumber is an anti-oxidant agent which help protect you from the malignancy.''


Carcinogenic agents are classified into five groups, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer under the World Health Organization.

Here is the list of some examples of carcinogens in each group, many of which are familiar and used in our everyday life.

Information from

About the author

Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Muse Editor