New Evidence Links Air Pollution to Cancer

Originally reported on on October 18, 2013

We see pollution every day, whether it’s from the exhaust fumes of our cars or the thick clouds of never-ending smoke spewing from the urban factories we pass on our commute to school or work every morning. Oftentimes we’ll either complain about the smell or the unappealing aesthetic as the gray smog covers up the sun gleaming in the bright blue sky. We’ll talk about how the pollution is ruining the environment and destroying the ozone layer. But do we really know how air pollution affects us? And where is the limit? When will we decide to do something about it? This limit came to a new realization this week.

Pollution in the air that we breathe pose serious health risks, including cancer, the World Health Organization announced Thursday.

The International Agency for Research of Cancer, a faction of the WHO, has officailly classified outdoor air pollution as “carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing evidence that directly links lung cancer to exposure to air pollution and suggests a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer. The declaration now places air pollution right alongside known cancer-causing agents such as tobacco smoke, UV radiation, asbestos and plutonium.

“>A group of expatriates stand along the Bund as they distribute face masks to pedestrians to raise awareness of air pollution in downtown Shanghai

The most recent data used in the study suggests that 223,000 people died as a result of lung cancer stemming from air pollution in 2010, according to a press release from the IARC Thursday. Exposure levels have increased and continue to increase rapidly, especially in countries with booming industrial bases with relatively few pollution controls coupled with large populations. While this is a global problem, citizens of these countries, particularly China and other parts of East Asia, are thought to be particularly at risk.

This evaluation follows an independent review of over 1000 scientific papers that analyze the carcinogenicity of various pollutants and findings from large studies about the spread of disease that included millions of people living in parts of North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

Previous findings prove that air pollution increases health risks, including heightening the chance of contracting respiratory and heart diseases.

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” says Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Section. “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.” 

One of the primary risks of air pollution, a complex mixture of gases and particulate matter, is that fine particles can engrain themselves deep in one’s lungs without any notice, the IARC said.

Sources of outdoor air pollution include widespread transportation exhaust, power generation, emissions from agriculture and industry, and heating and cooking fumes in residential homes.


And as pollution rates climb, so will the rate of cancer. 

So how do we stop that from happening? We clean our air, IARC Director Dr. Christopher Wild said.

“There are effective ways to reduce air pollution and, given the scale of the exposure affecting people worldwide, this report should send a strong signal to the international community to take action without further delay.” 

Some countries have started to warn their citizens of the risks of air pollution. The Embassy in Beijing, China, one of the most polluted countries in the world, posts hourly updates on the status of air pollution on their Twitter account @BeijingAir. Beijing Air often reports higher pollution rates than the Chinese government and always labels the pollution levels in their tweets as “Very Unhealthy,” “Unhealthy,” “Hazardous,” “Moderate,” and “Good.” This is one step forward in preventing the health risks associated with air pollution and will hopefully draw more attention to the severe levels in Beijing and call for an organized system of recovery.

What will you do to try and stop the effects of air pollution?

Check out these tips from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to see how you can make a difference in reducing air pollution by making small changes in your every day routine at home.

For more information on the effects of air pollution and to see how severe it can get check out this CNN video below, which captures a day in one of the smoggiest cities on Earth, Beijing, China:


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