Air pollution as a leading cause of cancer confirmed

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Air pollution is now a first class carcinogen says WHO report
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Understanding why cancer is on the rise is important to public health. Scientists have confirmed air pollution is a leading cause of not just lung, but possibly bladder and other types of cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution that can also occur inside the home may have been responsible for an estimated 223,000 lung cancer deaths worldwide in 2010 alone.

Dr. Kurt Straif, a member of WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says our air is pollution with a variety of cancer causing agents.

  • Sources of pollution include:
  • Indoor cooking and heating sources
  • Agriculture
  • Industry
  • Motor vehicle emissions
  • Stationary power generators

The WHO says it isn’t just our lungs that are affected. Cardiovascular researchers have been expressing concerns for a number of years that the work they do with heart patients is undone because pollution leads to heart disease and raises the risk of future cardiac events for those with existing heart ailments.

The report highlights the important of government action to reduce air pollution and is the first to confirm the air we breathe is laden with cancer causing toxins.

Some heavily pollution areas were found to raise a person’s risk of developing lung cancer to the same extent as tobacco smoke.

The finding is a the result of a review of thousands of studies that tracked decades of populations in addition to mouse studies showing air pollution causes lung tumors and took generations to discover, according to Dr. Christopher Wild, director of IARC.

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Wild said at the news briefing in Geneva "Often we're looking at two, three or four decades once an exposure is introduced before there is sufficient impact on the burden of cancer in the population to be able to study this type of question," he said.

Children living in areas of high pollution are known to have increased risk of asthma, based on multiple studies. A much investigated area is fine particulate matter.

According to the EPA, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead in the air we breathe are all known to harm health. The EPA regulates how much of each pollutant is permissible to keep humans safe, but studies have suggested allowed levels are still too high and still pose health risks.

"Our task was to evaluate the air everyone breathes rather than focus on specific air pollutants," deputy head Dana Loomis said in a statement. "The results from the reviewed studies point in the same direction: the risk of developing lung cancer is significantly increased in people exposed to air pollution.” Levels of pollution vary worldwide and day to day.

Areas most affected include China that is becoming highly industrialized, Asia, South Asia, eastern North America, some areas of Central America and Mexico, in addition to North Africa, though air pollution is a global problem that affects everyone’s risk of lung and possible bladder cancer in addition to heart disease and other respiratory problems.

If the study is concerning to you, following these steps from the EPA:

  • Buy ENERGY STAR labeled appliances for the home
  • Conserve energy by keeping your thermostat no lower than 78 degrees when cooling
  • Stop using wood logs in the fireplace and switch to gas
  • Carpool, walk or bike to your destination whenever possible
  • Avoid fuel and gas spills by keeping containers tightly capped
  • Use environmentally safe cleaning products
  • Mulch or compost leaves
  • Keep your boat and car engines tuned
  • Maintain proper tire inflation
  • When ozone levels are high keep your car from idling
  • Stop burning leaves and trash
  • Get rid of gas powered mowers and other equipment
  • Top off your gas tank in the evening during hot months
  • Organize your errand running so you drive less

The report is the first to classify air pollution and “particulate-matter” as “Class-1” human carcinogens. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide and claims 1.4 million lives worldwide each year. The WHO's IARC report says air pollution causes more lung cancer than breathing second-hand smoke.

Related:

  1. Permitted levels of air pollution harm the heart
  2. Air pollution and autism linked
  3. 8 health risks from air pollution and what to do

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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