Research led by University College London (UCL) and the University of Leeds, with support from a Cancer Research UK/Bupa Foundation Innovation Award, has revealed widespread public belief in “mythical causes” of cancer.

According to a survey of 1,330 people in England, more than 40 percent wrongly cited stress (43 percent) and food additives (42 percent) as causing the disease.

Thirty-five percent incorrectly believed that electromagnetic frequencies increased the risk, while 34 percent identified GM foods, 19 percent microwave ovens and 15 percent drinking from plastic bottles as potential drivers of cancer, despite a lack of good scientific evidence, the researchers note.

Among proven factors, 88 percent selected smoking and 60 percent chose sunburn as significantly increasing the risk of developing the disease.

“It’s worrying to see so many people endorse risk factors for which there is no convincing evidence,” said Dr Samuel Smith from the University of Leeds, commenting on the findings.

“Compared to past research it appears the number of people believing in unproven causes of cancer has increased since the start of the century which could be a result of changes to how we access news and information through the internet and social media.”

“Around four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes so it’s crucial we have the right information to help us separate the wheat from the chaff,” added Cancer Research UK’s Clare Hyde.

“There is no guarantee against getting cancer but by knowing the biggest risk factors we can stack the odds in our favour to help reduce our individual risk of the disease, rather than wasting time worrying about fake news.”