The two most common causes of lung cancer are smoking and exposure to radon. These two elements combined are thought to be the culprit for the high lung cancer rate in Kentucky.
When cells in the body divide, they normally die after a certain period of time. Sometimes, however, an accident occurs and some of the cells do not die. These ‘immortal’ cells continue to divide abnormally and can spread throughout the body. These abnormal cells are what we define as cancer. Anything that causes damage to a person’s cells increases the chances of that person developing cancer.
Smoking causes damage to the lungs and increases the likelihood of damage to the cells in this specific organ. There is a correlation between poverty, accompanied by illiteracy, and smoking. While this does not necessarily mean that poverty and illiteracy cause smoking habits, it does mean that if a state has a high level of both of these factors, it is more likely that the same state will also have a high level of smoking. Since there is a high poverty and low literacy rate in Kentucky, a large amount of smoking occurs in that specific state.
“Most of the problem in Kentucky are the high rates of poverty and low educational attainment,” said Thomas Tucker, leader of Kentucky’s cancer registry. “And those things together account for the really high rates of lung cancer, and they’re challenging to deal with. It’s not easy to overcome issues of poverty and low educational attainment.”
The rate of cancer in Kentucky is too significant for the cause to only be smoking. As the second leading cause of lung cancer, radon exposure, like smoking, is unusually high in Kentucky. According to Elizabeth Westbrook, a cancer control specialist for the Kentucky Cancer Program, “radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas.” Radon is located mostly in the soil and rock formation, such as cave systems and sink holes found in south central Kentucky. Once the gas is released, it attaches itself to dust or tobacco particles and is inhaled into the lungs.
According to Appalachian Voices, “In 2011, a peer-reviewed study found that self-reported cancer rates in counties where mountaintop removal occurs are nearly double the rates in nearby counties with no mountaintop removal.” The same article reads, “in addition, studies also show that communities near mountaintop removal mines have higher rates of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases than other Appalachian communities.”
“You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it,” said Westbrook. “You can’t see it, which is why people are encouraged to test their homes for radon.”
“Our investigations performed in the Upper Silesian Coal Basin,” wrote Wysocka, Nowak, Chałupnik, & Bonczyk, “showed that increased radon migration and its entering into buildings was caused by changes in the geological environment, due to the exploitation of mineral resources. The soil characteristics that allow gas movement to the surface in the investigated area and mining-induced changes of the rock body are among the main factors influencing radon’s ability to migrate over long distances.”
The Appalachian portion of Kentucky has a higher rate of lung cancer cases than the rest of Kentucky. However, according to Tucker, the Appalachian area does not have a large count of radon in the soil. Instead, mining in this area exposes cancer-inducing minerals, such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium and Nickel. These minerals enter people’s water, food and even the air. When they are inhaled and ingested, the metals cause damage to the body, much like smoking and radon exposure.
According to The Cancer Crisis in Appalachia: Kentucky Students Take Action, other factors can contribute to Kentucky’s high cancer rate, such as “poor diets, inadequate exercise, low socioeconomic levels, low education attainment and limited access to healthcare.”
However, the combined efforts of constant smoking and the intake of radon are the main causes for why so many people are developing lung cancer in the state.
Graphic created by the CDC.