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Air Pollution a Leading Cause of Cancer: World Health Organization

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances.”

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Air pollution causes cancer, the world health body declared on Thursday.

A woman bikes through pollution in Vietnam. (Photo: Letizia Airoldi/cc/flickr)While the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had previously classified elements of air pollution like diesel engine exhaust and some metals as carcinogens, the new designation marks the first time IARC is designating air pollution as a whole a carcinogen.

“Our task was to evaluate the air everyone breathes rather than focus on specific air pollutants,” Dr. Dana Loomis, Deputy Head of the Monographs Section of IARC, which identifies environmental factors that can increase the risk of human cancer, explained in a statement. 

Based on over 1000 scientific papers from studies across the world, the group now places air pollution among tobacco smoking, benzene and Gamma radiation as a known carcinogen in what is referred to as the "Encyclopaedia of Carcinogens.” 

“The WHO study confirms what many environmental justice community activists, leaders and scholars have been saying for decades."
—Dr. Robert Bullard
“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," added Loomis.

In addition to finding sufficient evidence to say that outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer, the group found a positive association to an increased risk of bladder cancer.

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” said 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.”

The causes of the air pollution the IARC points to are transportation, stationary power generation, industrial and agricultural emissions, and residential heating and cooking, and though there are extreme global differences in air quality, the IARC stated that the conclusions of their findings "apply to all regions of the world." 

“The WHO study confirms what many environmental justice community activists, leaders and scholars have been saying for decades," said Robert Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and a man considered "the father of environmental justice," in a statement given to Common Dreams

But, Bullard continued, "Air pollution is not only an environmental justice issue, it is also a health equity issue in the United States and around the world—with the most vulnerable populations, people of color, poor in cities, and vulnerable marginalized populations facing the greatest risks.”

IARC Director Dr. Christopher Wild concluded that "this report should send a strong signal to the international community to take action without further delay.”

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