Race and Lung Cancer in the United States

Lung cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed carcinoma in the US. This is behind tumors that affect the breast (in women), prostate (in men), and skin (both). Regardless, lung cancer reaches all communities, some more than others. When considering what demographics in the United States develop lung cancer at a higher rate, some have wondered if race had any effect on the numbers.

Can Race and Genetics Affect Tumor Growth and Mortality?

Genetics can play a part in the probability of someone getting lung cancer. The risk increases if parents or grandparents develop the illness and have children, as their offspring may inherit the same type of DNA mutation that caused their tumors to develop in the first place.

When considering impacts on specific races, some older studies suggest that African Americans have a difference in gene expression than Europeans that can cause a slight increase in the rate of tumor development, but there isn’t enough data to prove a definite correlation. This is mostly because lung cancer is a multifactorial process that’s mostly caused by contact with external carcinogens that cause DNA mutations. Some of these include asbestos, smoke, carbon monoxide, and radon to name a few.

Asbestos can be found on a roof, exposing workers and residents when disturbed.

Asbestos Exposure

One major cause of lung cancer is prolonged exposure to a mineral called asbestos. Originally found in underground rock and soil deposits, asbestos exposure is a big risk in some industries. More specifically, those that utilized the mineral’s natural resistance to heat, electrical, and chemical corrosion to manufacture asbestos compounds that reinforce building materials and infrastructure, machine parts, insulation, and more. This can include asbestos coatings made with textured paint, tiles, pipes, boilers, and automobile parts, among others. Most uses of the mineral were outlawed in the late 1970s even though the toxin is still being discovered today.


Healthcare for Lung Cancer icon.

Differences in Access to Care

Research does suggest significant disparities in access to health care and lung cancer mortality rate between Black Americans and Europeans. More specifically, that Black or African patients are less likely to receive adequate lung cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation when they need it.

Some reasons for this include lack of proper health insurance due to socioeconomic imbalances. Patients who reside in low-income or badly serviced communities may also lack transportation to medical facilities, doctors, services, or treatment they need. Other factors that weigh into these differences are cultural ideologies and beliefs about the illness and related anti-cancer therapies.

Moreover, low-income communities usually have dated infrastructure that’s worn down, dilapidated, or falling apart. Buildings in this condition built before the 1970s were mostly contaminated with some form of friable asbestos. This matters because the mineral is most dangerous to humans when it’s in a ‘friable’ state, or made into a powdery or crumbly consistency from minimal pressure or impact. When the fibers become crumbled, they’re easily airborne and then inhaled or ingested. Once ingested, asbestos fibers will latch to the lungs or local tissues and cause damage, inflammation, and scarring that can eventually stimulate latent tumor growth.


Engineer icon representing the differences in occupational impact on race.

Geographical and Occupational Impact on Race

Geographical location also plays a huge factor in asbestos-related lung disease in patients. Races and ethnicities who primarily live and work in cities or towns with high concentrations of asbestos dust are most at risk.

South Africa was the third-largest exporter of asbestos in the world for decades. Through exploitive social restrictions, African workers and residents of mining regions were largely impacted by the toxic mineral. Further contributions to rampant asbestos exposure, environmental pollution, and subsequent disease in South Africa are that their workers reside in mostly rural areas, are disenfranchised, and are mostly excluded from skilled training and work. Additionally, the mineral is highly politicized, and in countries with less government regulation or oversight, companies with vested economic interests encourage further misinformation about the mineral, exposure risk, and associated disease.

Occupational asbestos exposure is one of the largest contributors to the development of lung diseases and illnesses besides cigarette smoke. Specific industries (like mining and milling) carry a much larger chance for occupational exposure. African and Black communities often held dangerous jobs with high risks. These industries include:

Data suggests the following states contain high occupational exposure and disease (in no particular order): Montana, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. These states housed several industries that mined processed, manufactured, or otherwise utilized the mineral for commercial purposes.

Legal Rights

There are national and state laws and regulations that aim to control levels of asbestos exposure by enforcing guidelines for handling and disposing of the mineral. If you’re a part of a race or group that was negligently exposed to asbestos and developed lung cancer or other related diseases, you have legal rights and may be entitled to compensation from the companies responsible for the exposure.