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New Research on Air Pollution and Lung Cancer (2022)

detail of white smoke polluted sky

As a result of the TRACERx lung investigation, which was financed by Cancer Research U.K., researchers from the Francis Crick Institute and University College London presented their findings at the European Society for Medical Oncology’s annual meeting. Following the Saturday announcement of a new lung cancer discovery in Paris, experts stressed the significance of taking a more aggressive approach to reducing air pollution from fossil fuels.

According to Cancer Research U.K. chief clinician Charles Swanton, who led and presented the study:

“Our study has fundamentally changed how we view lung cancer in people who have never smoked…”

In contrast to sunlight and cigarettes, air pollution causes cancer in a different way. UV rays and tobacco smoke alter DNA’s structure, resulting in cancer-causing mutations. Lung inflammation brought on by air pollution affects cells that have undergone mutations. Swanton further explained that as we age, cancer-causing mutations naturally accumulate in cells, but they are typically dormant. Adding that “air pollution wakes the cells up in the lungs, encouraging them to grow and potentially form tumors.”

Meanwhile, according to Emilia Lim, co-author and postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute and University College London:

“According to our analysis, increasing air pollution levels increases the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancers of the mouth and throat… this finding suggests a broader role for cancers caused by inflammation triggered by a carcinogen like air pollution. Even small changes in air pollution levels can affect human health.”

Lim also added that 99% of the global population lives in areas that exceed annual World Health Organization (WHO) limits for PM2.5, “underlining the public health challenges posed by air pollution across the globe.”

The team investigated lung tissue samples from people and mice after exposure to particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are air particles with a diameter of no more than 2.5 micrometers. They analyzed 463,679 people from England, South Korea, and Taiwan. People who resided in areas with greater levels of PM2.5 pollution had higher rates of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutant lung cancer as well as other forms of cancer. They also discovered that in mice, inhibiting a chemical that is generated in response to PM2.5 exposure and induces inflammation stops cancer from developing.

According to a study from 2021, air pollution shortens the lifespan of the average person by more than two years. Swanton referred to air pollution as a “hidden killer,” according to Agence France-Presse, citing an estimate that it is responsible for more than eight million deaths annually throughout the world. Although the majority of people are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, which has been linked to several health problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, and heart disease, research has repeatedly shown that it is frequently worse in the poorest places.

Swanton emphasized that the same airborne particles that result from burning fossil fuels, aggravating climate change, are directly affecting human health via a critical and formerly ignored cancer-causing mechanism in lung cells. He then added:

“The risk of lung cancer from air pollution is lower than from smoking, but we have no control over what we all breathe. Globally, more people are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution than to toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke, and these new data link the importance of addressing climate health to improving human health. It’s a wake-up call on the impact of pollution on human health. You cannot ignore climate health. If you want to address human health, you have to address climate health first.”

References:

https://www.esmo.org/newsroom/press-releases/scientists-discover-how-air-pollution-may-trigger-lung-cancer-in-never-smokers

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