Both nature and humans produce a number of carcinogens, or substances that can cause cancer. And while we keep discovering carcinogenic potential of everything from sunlight to invisible nuclear radiation and viruses to tangible things like asbestos and tobacco, a new paper called for research to be undertaken to see if there is a link between human activity and the incidence of cancer among wild animals.

Researchers from Arizona State University want to know if we humans, as a species, are oncogenic, a term for species that causes cancer in others.

“We know that some viruses can cause cancer in humans by changing the environment that they live in — in their case, human cells — to make it more suitable for themselves. Basically, we are doing the same thing. We are changing the environment to be more suitable for ourselves, while these changes are having a negative impact on many species on many different levels, including the probability of developing cancer,” Tuul Sepp from ASU explained in a statement Monday.

Seep and Mathieu Giraudeau, two of the paper’s coauthors, gave examples of human pollution and its impact on animals. The paper speaks about existing research on the incidence of cancer among animals that live in areas heavily contaminated by human physical or chemical pollution, and proposes that wild animals, living in places relatively free of human impact, suffer too.

The paper’s abstract says: “we propose that human activities might also increase cancer rate in wild populations through additional processes including light pollution, accidental (for example, human waste) or intentional (for example, bird feeders) wildlife feeding (and the associated change of diet), or reduction of genetic diversity in human-impacted habitats. The human species can thus be defined as an oncogenic species, moderating the environment in the way that it causes cancer in other wild populations.”

Cat with Skin Cancer
A cat is being prepared to receive surgery to treat skin cancer at a veterinarian clinic in Montevideo, Uruguay, Dec. 8, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Stapff

In every animal species that scientists have looked for cancer, unfortunately, they have found the disease, which is an indication of how prevalent it is among non-humans. And the scale of the problem is only one of the reasons that would make the proposed study a herculean task.

“The next step is definitely to go into the field and measure cancer rate in wild populations. We are now trying to develop some biomarkers to be able to study this. I think it would be interesting to measure cancer prevalence in wild animals in human-impacted environments and also in more preserved areas for the same species,” Giraudeau said.

If human activity turns out to be a definitive cause for incidences of cancer and tumors among wild animals, the negative impact of humans on the biodiversity of our planet would suddenly become known as much worse than currently understood.

Titled “Human activities might influence oncogenic processes in wild animal populations,” the paper appeared online Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.