Leukemia Causes

The causes of leukemia are complex. Certain external factors, such as radiation or toxic chemicals, explain some cases. Other causes of leukemia can be traced to family history or genetic disorders that damage chromosomes.

While what causes leukemia is often unknown, several leukemia risk factors have been identified. These include genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome and lifestyle factors like smoking. However, you may develop leukemia even if you don’t have any of these risk factors.

Leukemia, Genetic Disorders and Family History

Example of translocation associated with leukemia.A family history of certain types of leukemia may increase your leukemia risk. For example, if you have a twin who develops acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) or acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), you have a greater risk of also developing the disease. The risk of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) also increases in people who have a first-degree relative with CLL.

Certain genetic disorders also increase the likelihood of developing leukemia. Both Down’s syndrome and Fanconi anemia (an inherited bone marrow disorder) are considered leukemia risk factors.

Radiation, Chemicals and Leukemia Risk Factors

Exposure to high levels of radiation can cause leukemia. Higher rates of leukemia were reported after the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II. Radiation from nuclear accidents, such as the one that occurred in Chernobyl in 1986, also increases leukemia risk.

Fortunately, exposure to such high levels of radiation is uncommon. However, high doses of radiation used in certain medical treatments–including therapy for other cancers–may trigger the disease in some people.

Workers who are exposed to high levels of benzene, agricultural chemicals and some other substances are more likely to develop leukemia than other people. Certain chemotherapy drugs may also increase the risk of leukemia.

Ethnicity, Gender, Age and Leukemia

Age plays a role in leukemia development. Leukemia is most often diagnosed in people over 50, according to WrongDiagnosis.com (2010) and adults are 10 times more likely to develop the disease than children. Nevertheless, childhood leukemia remains one of the most common pediatric cancers.

Men are slightly more at risk than women, accounting for 57 percent of new leukemia cases, as the Headstrong Foundation (n.d.) reports. Ethnicity also plays an important role: Caucasians are at higher risk than other ethnic groups.

Smoking and Other Leukemia Risk Factors

Smoking is the only lifestyle activity proven to affect leukemia risk. Substances found in cigarette smoke–including benzene and polonium-210–are absorbed by the bloodstream through the lungs. Up to 25 percent of AML cases may be linked to smoking, according to the Oncology Channel Online (2009).

HTLV-1 is a virus that causes adult T-cell leukemia. Although HTLV-1 is a virus, no medical research suggests that the virus is contagious through casual contact.

Electromagnetic Fields and Leukemia Risk: Fact or Fiction?

For some time, some people speculated that exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from power lines could be one of the causes of leukemia. Most clinical investigations have indicated that exposure to electromagnetism is not a significant risk factor for adult leukemia. However, some studies have found a link between EMFs and acute leukemia in children. Further studies are needed to explore this possible link.


American Cancer Society . (n.d.). What are the risk factors for chronic leukemia? Retrieved March 10, 2010, from www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_2X_What_are_the_risk_factors_for_leukemia_62.asp?sitearea=