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Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow. The disease causes an abnormal increase of white blood cells. There are many types of leukemia.

Each year, leukemia affects approximately 45,000 people in the United States and kills 22,000.

Risk factors

Risk factors for some types of leukemia include:

  • Chemicals in the environment (benzene, which comes from gasoline, and pesticides)
  • Smoking
  • Eating red meat
  • Viral infections

Sunlight exposure and leukemia risk

There is some evidence that solar ultraviolet-B (UVB) light reduces the risk of leukemia:

  • One paper reported fewer leukemia deaths at altitudes above 2000 feet. UVB levels increase at higher altitudes.
  • In the United Kingdom, childhood leukemia has been linked to infections in the winter.
  • A study of United Arab Emirates (UAE) natives found a higher rate of acute lymphoblastic leukemia among females than males. This is the opposite of what is found in other countries. This finding may be due to the clothing that UAE females wear. Their skin is covered from the sun. As a result, they may have lower vitamin D levels.
  • A multi-country study found leukemia incidence rates increased with distance from the equator. At higher latitudes, solar UVB doses are lower.

Vitamin D and leukemia

Vitamin D levels

The Harvard Health Professionals Follow-up Study noted a direct link between vitamin D and leukemia rate. People in the highest vitamin D group had a 56% reduction in leukemia compared to those in the lowest group. However, only 82 people developed leukemia, which is a small sample size.

How vitamin D works

Vitamin D may lower the risk of some types of leukemia by:

  • Strengthening the immune system to fight viral infections.
  • Control of cellular growth such that cells either adapt to the organ they are in or disintegrate.


While the evidence is modest, higher vitamin D levels may prevent some types of leukemia. Higher vitamin D levels might help lower infections in the winter, and, thus, the risk of leukemia.


People with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and higher vitamin D levels had 50% lower disease progression and survival rates. People with this form of leukemia may have a better outcome with vitamin D supplements.


This evidence summary was written by:

William B. Grant, Ph.D.
Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center (SUNARC)
P.O. Box 641603
San Francisco, CA 94164-1603, USA
[email protected]

Last updated

June 2011


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