Scientists Say: Carcinogen | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Carcinogen

This word is used for any agent that can cause cancer
Jun 29, 2015 — 7:30 am EST
X-rays allow us to see our bones in wonderful detail. But too much exposure can be dangerous. X-rays are a carcinogen, meaning that they can cause cancer.

X-rays allow us to see our bones in wonderful detail. But too much exposure can be dangerous. X-rays are a carcinogen, meaning that they can cause cancer. 

Michael Dorausch/Flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Carcinogen (noun, “car-SIN-oh-gen”)

This is any agent that can cause cancer. This disease involves the uncontrolled growth of cells in the body. Carcinogens can be chemicals such as benzene, which is found in cigarette smoke. They can also be radioactive elements, such as plutonium. Even some electromagnetic waves, such as X-rays, can cause cancer. These agents can damage DNA — the instruction manual for our cells. Others also can alter how a cell functions. If there is too much damage, the cell may divide uncontrollably.  When a substance is a carcinogen, it is referred to as “carcinogenic” (adjective, “car-SIN-oh-GEN-ick”).

In a sentence

Chemicals from cigarette smoke can linger in the air, reacting with other chemicals to form carcinogens that harm even non-smokers.

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Power Words

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benzene  A ring-shaped hydrocarbon molecule made from six carbon and six hydrogen atoms. It’s liquid at room temperature and easily evaporates into the air. It’s widely used in industry and a natural constituent of petroleum, gasoline and cigarette smoke. It is highly toxic if breathed in large amounts and may cause cancer after prolonged, lower dose exposure.

cancer  Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

carcinogen  A substance, compound or other agent (such as radiation) that causes cancer.

cell   The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye,it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size.

chemical      A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

DNA  (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

electromagnetic radiation  Energy that travels as a wave, including forms of light. Electromagnetic radiation is typically classified by its wavelength. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation ranges from radio waves to gamma rays. It also includes microwaves and visible light.

element  (in chemistry)Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

molecule  An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

radiation (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.              

radioactive  An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.

reactive   (in chemistry)  The tendency of a substance to take part in a chemical process, known as a reaction, that leads to new chemicals or changes in existing chemicals.

sun  The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

X-ray        A type of radiation analogous to gamma rays, but of somewhat lower energy.