Can You Prevent Leukemia?

No, but you can lower your risk of the disease

There is no way to prevent leukemia, a form of cancer that affects blood cells in children and adults. That's mainly because exactly what causes leukemia is not known. A search for information on how to prevent leukemia in children or adults, then, must pivot to one about how to reduce your risk of the disease.

While there are some risk factors for leukemia that cannot be changed, such as your age or your assigned sex, there are others that can. These include exposures to certain chemicals, unnecessary medical radiation, smoking, not exercising, poor diet, and being overweight.

This article further explains why leukemia cannot be outright prevented. You will also learn about the risk factors for leukemia that are out of your control, as well as the ones that you might be able to influence.

leukemia causes and risk factors
Illustration by Verywell

Environmental Exposures and Leukemia Risk

Researchers are still trying to understand why certain substances in the environment could raise your cancer risk, including your risk for leukemia.

It is helpful to learn about what is known—or even suspected—about these substances, known a carcinogens. Taking steps to avoid them now may help you avoid possible health risks later.


The most well-documented environmental exposure linked to leukemia risk is benzene. Benzene is a byproduct of the combustion of coal and petroleum. It is present in motor vehicle exhaust and tobacco smoke.

Benzene is also found in products like:

  • Paints
  • Wood stains and varnishes
  • Solvents
  • Resins
  • Glues
  • Plastics
  • Cleaning products
  • Automotive products
  • Driveway sealer
  • Pesticides
  • Weed killers
  • Detergents
  • Unleaded gasoline

You might be exposed to benzene at work (in jobs that manufacture or use these products) or at home (such as when updating a room).

Benzene exposure in young children or during pregnancy has been associated with childhood leukemia.

If a product contains benzene, it may have a label indicating that a carcinogen is present, but it's important to practice caution about using products even if a warning label isn't obvious.

Employers are required to provide Material Safety Data Sheets to employees, which outline safety information about any products they will be using.

Avoidance is the best form of prevention, but this is not always possible. Make sure to read labels and follow precautions. Refrain from using these products when children are present.


Formaldehyde has also been associated with an increased risk of leukemia. It's common in medical laboratories and embalming fluids.

At home, formaldehyde is found in pressed wood products (such as particle board), some air fresheners, upholstery, wallpaper, and permanent press clothing.

There are guidelines on the maximum amount of formaldehyde emissions allowed from pressed wood products, such as those in U.S. Department of House and Urban Development (HUD) homes, but people need to take steps to minimize their exposure. Exterior grade pressed wood products may emit less formaldehyde.


Home and garden pesticides have been found to be associated with leukemia in children exposed to them in utero, young children exposed in the home, and adults exposed at home or on the job.

Some studies have found the risk of leukemia in children who were exposed to home pesticides to be as high as seven times that of kids who weren't exposed.

Home pesticide exposures of concern may include:

  • Gardening chemicals (for houseplants and garden plants)
  • Chemicals applied by professional pest services
  • Some fertilizers
  • Weed killers (fungicides and herbicides) (this is the reason yard services place signs on the grass recommending that pets not walk on the grass for a time)
  • Some insecticides
  • Some shampoos used to treat head lice
  • Flea killers for pets (including flea collars and flea bombs)

To reduce exposures, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recommends using integrated pest management principles when faced with the need to eliminate pests in the homes:

  • Practice caution when using gardening chemicals.
  • Pulling weeds or killing them with boiling water are alternatives for pesky weeds in your landscape.
  • Pet products, such as flea killers, should be kept away from children. While some products, such as flea "bombs" recommend leaving the home for a period of time, this should be a very minimum, especially for young children.

People who choose organic produce sometimes cite avoiding pesticides as a reason; however, pesticide residue on foods has not been proven to raise the risk of leukemia.

Some researchers claim that the majority of pesticide exposure from foods comes from only 12 foods known as the "Dirty Dozen."


Radon in our homes is a well-known carcinogen. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Research suggests it may also play a role in leukemia risk.

Radon is a normal breakdown product of uranium found in rocks and soil beneath homes and has been found in homes in all 50 states and around the world. The gas is odorless and colorless. The only way to know if your home is safe is to do radon testing.

Researchers aren't clear about the link between leukemia and radon, but they do know that the incidence of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in the U.S. isn't random— the cancer is much more common in some regions, such as the northern and central states.

A 2016 study found regions with a high incidence of CLL have the highest level of radon in homes on average.

While the finding is only a correlation and does not mean that radon is the definitive cause, the association of radon with lung cancer has researchers wondering if the mechanism with leukemia is the same.

Radon test kits are available at most hardware stores and cost only around $10. If your home level of radon is abnormal, the EPA has advice on what the different numbers mean and when you may need radon mitigation in your home.

How to Protect Yourself From Chemical Exposures

Reducing your leukemia risk by limiting your exposure to chemicals involves several steps, but the first and most important is to always read labels on products you're using at home or at work and follow the instructions to the letter.

Wear Protective Gear

If a substance calls for good ventilation, heed those instructions. Some products should only be used when you're wearing a respirator (a regular mask may do nothing). Wearing gloves is also a must, as skin is not a solid barrier.

A general rule is that if you would not eat something, you should think twice about touching it without wearing gloves.

Add Houseplants to Your Home

You can reduce your exposure to some chemicals by adding houseplants to your home, which have been proven to improve air quality. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) did research to determine which houseplants are best at absorbing indoor air carcinogens.

The best houseplants for removing benzene include:

  • Chrysanthemums
  • Gerbera daisies
  • Peace lilies
  • Spider plants

For removing formaldehyde, the best choices are:

  • Boston ferns
  • Chrysanthemums
  • English ivy
  • Golden pathos
  • Janet Craig dracaena
  • Palms (many types, including parlor palm)
  • Philodendron
  • Peace lilies
  • Rubber plants
  • Spider plants

Other helpful houseplants include:

  • Ficus
  • Chinese evergreen
  • Marginata
  • Warnecki

For reducing carcinogens in indoor air, the magic number appears to be around 15 plants in 6-inch containers (or the equivalent) for every 2000 square feet of living space. Keep in mind that some plants can be poisonous to children or pets, may cause allergies in some people, or result in mold production.

Medical Treatments and Leukemia Risk

There are a remarkable array of diagnostic tests and treatment options for various medical issues today. While helpful for their intended purposes, some may also raise the risk of leukemia.

Diagnostic Medical Radiation

Medical imaging tests such as X-rays and CT scans help healthcare providers diagnose disease. These tests use ionizing radiation. When talking about radiation exposure, healthcare providers use the term millisievert (mSV) or milligray (mGy).

The risk of leukemia related to medical imaging studies was first noted not long after X-rays were introduced and has been revisited in recent years, especially when the scans are used in children.

The average American is exposed to around 3.0 mSv of natural radiation each year, with the amount somewhat higher at higher elevations.

It's not known exactly what level of exposure can lead to leukemia, but estimates have been made based on the risk found with atomic bomb exposures.

Average Radiation Exposures

The average yearly exposure to medical radiation has been increasing. In 1982, the average American was exposed to 0.5 mSV of medical radiation yearly. In 2006, the average exposure was 3.0 mSV per year, and 2018, 6.2 mSV per year. With occupational exposure, the exposure limit is 50 mSV per year or 100 mSV over five years.

The risk of cancer from medical radiation varies significantly from one test to another. The average radiation exposure of common imaging studies includes:

Exposure to medical radiation is of greater concern in children than in older adults because of their susceptibility to radiation and the longer period of time over which cancer could develop.

Ask If Tests Are Needed

If you're concerned about the risk of leukemia related to medical tests, talk to your provider. These tests are often necessary and skipping them could lead to a diagnosis being missed. In some cases, your provider will decide that the risks of radiation exposure are not as significant as the benefit of having the test.

You should still ask your provider questions, such as:

  • Is this procedure medically necessary?
  • Would waiting to see if a condition resolves on its own be detrimental? Could the test be put off for a few days, after which time it might not be needed?
  • Is there another test that could be done that doesn't involve the same level of exposure? For example, a regular X-ray instead of a CT scan?
  • Is there a test that could be used that doesn't involve radiation? MRI scans and ultrasound examinations do not expose people to ionizing radiation, for example.
  • Could a procedure substitute for an imaging study? For example, could an upper or lower GI endoscopy (tests that do not involve radiation exposure) be done instead of barium X-ray studies?

If you're the caregiver of a child who needs a medical test, there are also important questions to ask a provider. For example, you'll want to find out whether the amount of radiation used for the test can be adjusted for a child's size as this is not always done, especially in non-pediatric and community hospitals.

Radioactive Iodine Therapy

Having certain treatments for cancer and other medical conditions may involve radiation exposure that might increase your risk of leukemia.

Radioactive iodine therapy (RAI) is a treatment for hyperthyroidism or thyroid cancer. It is usually used as adjuvant therapy after surgery to get rid of any cancer cells that may have been left behind.

In a 2017 study, people who received RAI had an 80% higher risk of developing acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) than people who did not have RAI.

The risk of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) was even higher—the people who received RAI were 3.44 times more likely to develop CML than the people who had surgery for thyroid cancer alone.

The increased risk of leukemia does not mean everyone should avoid RAI. People should talk to their providers about the risks and benefits of the treatment.

If your provider suggests RAI but you aren't sure, you may want to get a second opinion at one of the larger National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers.

If you've had RAI, know the symptoms of leukemia and ask your providers about whether regular blood tests would be useful.

Radiation Therapy and Chemotherapy

Radiation therapy for cancer can increase the risk of developing AML. The peak in risk occurs five to nine years after treatment.

Some chemotherapy drugs increase the risk of leukemia in the beginning, with peak risk occurring five to 10 years after treatment.

The benefits of cancer radiation treatment usually outweigh the risks, but you'll still want to talk to your provider about your options.

Leukemia Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

Your Lifestyle and Leukemia Risk

You might be able to lower your leukemia risk by making changes to your lifestyle—or at least understanding how your choices affect your cancer risk.

We hear a lot about how our lifestyle and habits relate to our risk for cancers. We don't know as much about how these choices affect leukemia risk, especially childhood leukemia. That said, making some changes to your life can be a good way to improve your overall health and potentially reduce your cancer risk.

Woman exercising.
Laura Porter / Verywell 


There are no foods that are proven to cause leukemia. There also are no foods that are proven to prevent leukemia. That said, your diet may play a role in your risk for leukemia as it does for other diseases.

A 2018 European study found that eating a traditional Western diet may increase the risk of CLL. In the study, the risk of CLL was compared between people who consumed a Western diet, the Prudent diet, and the Mediterranean diet.

People eating a Western diet were 63% more likely to develop CLL than people who followed the Prudent or Mediterranean diets.

Foods included in a typical Western diet include high-fat dairy products, processed meats, refined grains, sweets, convenience foods, and high-calorie beverages.

In contrast, the Prudent diet stresses low-fat dairy products, vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and juice. Foods common in the Mediterranean diet include fish, beans (legumes), boiled potatoes, olives, fruits, and olive oil.

The Mediterranean diet is associated with better health in many ways relative to a traditional Western-style diet.

Artificial Sweeteners

It's not clear whether consuming artificial sweeteners are specifically linked to your risk for leukemia, as the research on the subject has mostly been done in animals and not in people.

One of the most popular artificial sweeteners is sucralose. It's found in thousands of products worldwide, such as Splenda.

The possible association between the artificial sweetener sucralose and cancer has raised some concern since its approval in 1999. Despite studies that demonstrated its safety prior to its approval, a 2016 Italian study on mice found that mice who were exposed to sucralose throughout their lives, beginning in-utero, had a significantly increased risk of leukemia.

While it's important to note that the study may have raised concerns about sucralose and leukemia, it's also important to keep in mind that since the study was done on animals, the findings do not necessarily apply to humans.

Whether or not sucralose is associated with leukemia, there is evidence for caution. Sucralose has been found to reduce the number of "good bacteria" in the gut, and the ratio of good vs. bad bacteria in the intestines is now being linked with a number of health conditions, including lymphoma.

Concerns about all types of artificial sweeteners, in fact, have been raised. Minimizing the use of any of these options is likely wise as part of an overall healthy diet.


Getting regular exercise supports your overall health and may help lower your risk for leukemia.

We've known for a long time that physical activity can reduce the risk of some solid tumors, but it's only recently that its potential role in reducing the risk of leukemia has been evaluated.

A 2016 study looking at 1.4 million people found that more physical activity (leisure activity) was strongly associated with a lower risk of developing myeloid leukemia (AML or CML). The 20% reduction was not because people who were more active were less likely to be overweight or have obesity.

Not all studies have linked a lack of exercise with leukemia, but since it's thought that the majority of people in the U.S. get too little exercise, adding physical activity to a cancer prevention lifestyle may be helpful.


Smoking is a strong risk factor for the development of AML, thought to be responsible for more than 20% of these cancers. In addition, parental smoking during pregnancy and even secondhand smoke exposure during pregnancy appear to increase the risk of childhood leukemia in offspring.

Tobacco smoke contains many toxic chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde. When these chemicals are inhaled into the lungs, they can easily travel to the bloodstream, and from there, throughout the body.


While it's a less common risk factor, there is a sexually transmitted virus that can increase your risk for leukemia.

The human T-cell leukemia virus 1 (HTLV-1) is a type of virus that infects T lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) and can significantly raise the risk of leukemia.

Roughly 10 to 20 million people are infected with these viruses worldwide, and around 2% to 5% of people exposed will develop leukemia.

HTLV-1 is uncommon in the United States but is found in many areas of the world such as the Caribbean, central and west Africa, the Middle East, and other regions.

It is spread through sexual contact, but also by sharing syringes or needles used to inject drugs, through blood transfusions, and from parent to child at birth or through breastfeeding.


Your weight may also play a role in your leukemia risk. A number of studies have suggested that being overweight or having obesity is associated with an increased risk of AML.

A 2011 review of studies, however, looked at all of the major types of leukemia. It was found that obesity (a BMI of 30 or over), but not being overweight (BMI of 25 to 29), was associated with an overall risk of adult-onset leukemia that was 17% higher than that of people of normal weight.

Broken down, the risk was increased by 38% for AML, 62% for acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), 27% for CML, and 17% for CLL.

Leukemia Risk in Pregnant People

If you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant, you may wonder if there's a way to prevent childhood leukemia.

A 2016 study looked at why the rates of childhood leukemia were high in California. It showed that babies born to people who were exposed to benzene and pesticides while they were pregnant had an elevated risk of leukemia. Smoking during pregnancy was also noted as a childhood leukemia risk factor.

While alcohol intake has not appeared to be linked with the major types of leukemia, there is some evidence that if a pregnant person consumes alcohol during their pregnancy, their child may have a higher risk of leukemia.

It's not simply what to avoid that's important for pregnant people, however. Pregnant people can also take steps to possibly lower the risk of leukemia in their kids. A 2014 study found that babies born to people who used supplements of prenatal vitamins and folic acid had a lower risk of both AML and ALL.


You can't prevent leukemia because cancer doesn't have a single cause. There are risk factors for leukemia that you can't change, like your age and genes. However, aspects of your lifestyle that you can change—like avoiding environmental exposures to chemicals, eating well and exercising, managing your weight, and being aware of the risks of medical radiation can help you lower your risk of leukemia.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the main cause of leukemia?

    There isn't a single cause of leukemia. Multiple factors, like age, race, genetics, lifestyle choices, and exposure to chemicals have all been linked to the disease.

  • Which foods can give you leukemia? Can foods prevent leukemia?

    There is no evidence that diet can prevent leukemia specifically. However, diet plays an important role in lowering your overall cancer risk.

  • Can leukemia come back after chemo?

    Cancer can come back after treatment. People with leukemia who undergo chemotherapy and/or other treatments often go into remission. If this does not happen and their cancer returns, they might be able to try another treatment.

  • Can you keep leukemia from coming back?

    It isn't possible to definitively prevent leukemia from recurring. Even if you follow your provider's treatment plan and take steps to promote your health, it's not always possible to prevent a cancer recurrence.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.