Outdoor air pollution has been definitively linked to cancer and is officially classified as a carcinogen, according to research released Thursday by The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization.
“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” said Kurt Straif, head of the IARC’s monographs section, which is tasked with ranking carcinogens.
The IARC’s research found the toll of air pollution on public health worldwide is significant. In 2010 alone, exposure to ambient fine particles was recently estimated to have contributed to 3.2 million premature deaths, predominantly from cardiovascular disease, and 223,000 deaths from lung cancer. More than half of the lung cancer deaths attributable to ambient fine particles were projected to have been in China and other East Asian countries.
Sources of air pollution identified by the agency include emissions from motor vehicles, industrial processes, power plants and household heating and cooking fumes and while the chemical makeup of outdoor air pollution varies around the globe, the IARC was clear that “the mixtures of ambient air pollution invariably contain specific chemicals known to be carcinogenic to humans.”
Higher levels of air pollution have long been connected to an array of health problems, such as increased rates of asthma and heart disease, and millions of deaths annually around the world. In making the case for the Obama administration’s new standards aimed at limiting the amount of carbon pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants, Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy noted that “the nation’s asthma rates have already doubled over the past 30 years.”
But the WHO’s link between air pollution and cancer is a significant revelation that underscores the urgency of reducing pollution levels worldwide. The expert panel analyzed more than 1,000 studies worldwide and found enough evidence to conclude exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. “Our task was to evaluate the air everyone breathes rather than focus on specific air pollutants,” said Dana Loomis, deputy head of the monographs section. “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.” The agency also linked air pollution to increased risk of bladder cancer.
“This is something governments and environmental agencies need to take care of,” Straif emphasized. “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.”