(Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
Hide Caption

World Health Organization: Air pollution causes lung cancer

a a a a
Share this story
Show Related Headlines
Related Articles
Eat up! 9 cancer-fighting foods
Children's announces $160M Liberty expansion
Reds' Mark Berry back from cancer
PHOTOS: Making Strides Against Breast Cancer

LONDON (AP) -- What many commuters choking on smog have long suspected has finally been scientifically validated: air pollution causes lung cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer declared on Thursday that air pollution is a carcinogen, alongside known dangers such as asbestos, tobacco and ultraviolet radiation. The decision came after a consultation by an expert panel organized by IARC, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, which is based in Lyon, France.

"The air most people breathe has become polluted with a complicated mixture of cancer-causing substances," said Kurt Straif, head of the IARC department that evaluates carcinogens.

He said the agency now considers pollution to be "the most important environmental carcinogen," ahead of second-hand cigarette and cigar smoke.

RELATED | Link discovered between air pollution and low birth weight
MORE | Air pollution linked to depression and slow thinking 

IARC had previously deemed some of the components in air pollution such as diesel fumes to be carcinogens, but this is the first time it has classified air pollution in its entirety as cancer causing.

The risk to the individual is low, but Straif said the main sources of pollution are widespread, including transportation, power plants, and industrial and agricultural emissions.

Air pollution is a complex mixture that includes gases and particulate matter, and IARC said one of its primary risks is the fine particles that can be deposited deep in the lungs of people.

"These are difficult things for the individual to avoid," he said, while observing the worrying dark clouds from nearby factories that he could see from his office window in Lyon on Wednesday. "When I walk on a street where there's heavy pollution from diesel exhaust, I try to go a bit further away," he said. "So that's something you can do."

The fact that nearly everyone on the planet is exposed to outdoor pollution could prompt governments and other agencies to adopt stricter controls on spewing fumes. Straif noted that WHO and the European

Commission are reviewing their recommended limits on air pollution.

Previously, pollution had been found to boost the chances of heart and respiratory diseases.

The expert panel's classification was made after scientists analyzed more than 1,000 studies worldwide and concluded there was enough evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer.

In 2010, IARC said there were more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths worldwide connected to air pollution.

The agency also noted a link with a slightly higher risk of bladder cancer.

Straif said there were dramatic differences in air quality between cities around the world and that the most polluted metropolises were in China and India, where people frequently don masks on streets to protect themselves. China recently announced new efforts to curb pollution after experts found the country's thick smog hurts tourism. Beijing only began publicly releasing data about its air quality last year.

"I assume the masks could result in a reduction to particulate matter, so they could be helpful to reduce personal exposure," Straif said. But he said collective international action by governments was necessary to improve air quality.

"People can certainly contribute by doing things like not driving a big diesel car, but this needs much wider policies by national and international authorities," he said.

Other experts emphasized the cancer risk from pollution for the average person was very low - but virtually unavoidable.

"You can choose not to drink or not to smoke, but you can't control whether or not you're exposed to air pollution," said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatics at Harvard University's School of Public Health.

"You can't just decide not to breathe," she said. Dominici was not connected to the IARC expert panel.

A person's risk for cancer depends on numerous variables, including genetics, exposure to dangerous substances and lifestyle choices regarding issues such as drinking alcohol, smoking and exercising.

Dominici said scientists are still trying to figure out which bits of pollution are the most lethal and called for a more targeted approach.

"The level of ambient pollution in the U.S. is much, much lower than it used to be, but we still find evidence of cancer and birth defects," she said. "The question is: How are we going to clean the air even further?"

 

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Print this article

Comments

Hmm... It looks like you’re not a WCPO Insider. or Subscribe now to contribute!

More Health News
How safe is your favorite restaurant?
How safe is your favorite restaurant?

A WCPO analysis of 32,474 violations at 5,579 food-service facilities found ethnic restaurants have higher violation counts per inspection…

Prof: Want fewer preemies? Stop cycle of abuse
Prof: Want fewer preemies? Stop cycle of abuse

A local girl's  haunting story should serve as a wake-up call about the vulnerability poor young girls, in our city and in our…

Diabetics beware: Here come insurance companies
Diabetics beware: Here come insurance companies

Diabetics beware. Your insurance company is looking for you.

Can new face change look of health care system?
Can new face change look of health care system?

Abruptly on the spot as the new face of "Obamacare," Sylvia Mathews Burwell faces steep challenges, both logistical and political.

Dieters move past calories, food makers follow
Dieters move past calories, food makers follow

Obsessing over calories alone has left dieters with an empty feeling.

VIDEO: Race day can bring injuries to runners
VIDEO: Race day can bring injuries to runners

Thousands of runners are getting ready for the 16th annual Flying Pig Marathon . They’ve run countless miles and worked for months.…

Walmart, Wild Oats unveil cheaper organic line
Walmart, Wild Oats unveil cheaper organic line

Wal-Mart is using its massive size to drive down the price of organic food items from tomato paste to chicken broth to make them more…

5 things to know about heroin use, getting help
5 things to know about heroin use, getting help

Long a scourge of the back alleys of American life, heroin is spreading across the country.

Mother questions safety of HPV vaccine
Mother questions safety of HPV vaccine

After her daughter experienced adverse side effects from Gardasil, one mother questioned the general safety of the HPV vaccine.

Pfizer reports promising results for cancer drug
Pfizer reports promising results for cancer drug

An experimental drug has shown encouraging results in treating advanced breast cancer in an early clinical trial, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer…