Air pollution causes cancer –WHO

By: Chioma Umeha

The cancer arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which is based in Lyon, France, on Thursday, confirmed that air pollution causes cancer. An agency report stated that the decision came after a consultation by an expert panel organized by IARC, adding that air pollution is a carcinogen, alongside known dangers such as asbestos, tobacco and ultraviolet radiation. 

The report said: “What many commuters choking on smog have long suspected has finally been scientifically validated: air pollution causes lung cancer.” Kurt Straif, head of the IARC department that evaluates cancer-causing substances, noted:”We consider this to be the most important environmental carcinogen, more so than passive smoking.” 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 report said. 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, adding; “when I walk on a street where there’s heavy pollution from diesel exhaust, I try to go a bit further away.” he said. 

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,” the head of the IARC department said. Other experts emphasized the cancer risk from pollution for the average person was very low – but virtually unavoidable. Reacting to the research, Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatics at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, said:”You can choose not to drink or not to smoke, but you can’t control whether or not you’re exposed to air pollution, adding, ‘you cannot just decide not to breathe.” 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?” Dominici asked rhetorically.

This story was published in Newswatch Times on October 19,  2013.


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