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Liver Cancer and the Environment

Liver cancer is a disease in which cancer forms in the liver cells. Liver cancer is very rare in the United States (U.S.). Only 1.8% of new cancer cases every year are liver cancer. However, the percentage of Americans developing liver cancer has been rising slowly for several decades.

The liver plays an important role in removing harmful substances from our blood. This includes environmental contaminants people come into contact with during their lifetimes. Even though the liver usually does a good job at removing those harmful substances, certain chemicals have been shown to damage the liver. For example, studies have shown that some people who drink water containing high levels of arsenic over many years could experience health effects including liver cancer.

Exposure and Risk

Certain people are at increased risk for liver cancer. Globally, 80% to 95% of all liver cancer cases are associated with hepatitis B or hepatitis C viruses.

Other known risk factors include:

  • Gender
    • Some types of liver cancer are more common in men than in women
  • Race/ethnicity
    • In the U.S., Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of liver cancer, followed by African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives and Hispanics/Latinos, and Caucasians.
  • Chronic viral hepatitis
    • The most common risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with the hepatitis B or C virus.
  • Underlying health conditions
    • Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, increases a person's risk of liver cancer. The majority of people with liver cancer have some evidence of cirrhosis.
  • Behavior
    • Heavy alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of liver cancer by causing cirrhosis.
    • Evidence suggests that smokers are at increased risk for liver cancer.
    • Eating foods tainted with aflatoxin. This is a poison from a fungus that can grow on foods, such as grains and nuts, that have not been stored properly.
  • Exposure to arsenic
    • Drinking water contaminated with arsenic, increases the risk of some types of liver cancer.
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You may be able to reduce your risk for many types of liver cancer by avoiding known risk factors for the disease, such as:

  • avoiding becoming infected by hepatitis and treating hepatitis infections,
  • limiting alcohol and tobacco use,
  • treating other diseases that increase liver cancer risk,
  • limiting exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, and
  • completing vaccination for hepatitis B.
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