New study links air pollution to lung cancer

Posted by Samantha Powell on July 29th, 2013 |

Date: 7/29/2013

Outlet Full Name: The Courier News

Author Name: Emily McFarlan Miller

A recent study is providing more evidence of a link between lung cancer and air pollution often found in urban areas.

But according to Ashby Jordan, medical director of the Respiratory Care Clinic at Advocate Sherman Hospital, it doesn’t mean city dwellers should pack up and move to the farmlands west of here.

“This is not, ‘I live in a city, I’m going to get cancer,’ ” Jordan said this week following the just-released multinational study published earlier this month in The Lancet Oncology that suggests a link between air pollution and lung cancer.

“Pollution can absolutely play a role in increasing a person’s risk for cancer,” he said.

The European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects, or ESCAPE, focused on the health risk of long-term exposure to pollution. Led by the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, it compared local air quality levels with the number of reported lung cancer cases, according to the Advocate Health Care website.

That included an analysis of 17 cohorts in nine different European countries — more than 300,000 people. Of those, 2,095 people developed lung cancer over a period of 13 years, it said.

That’s a “slight increase of lung cancer in the area where there’s more pollution,” Jordan said.

The link between pollution and lung cancer was first established “long ago” when researchers noticed an increase in that type of cancer in places where charcoal was used for cooking indoors, such as South Korea and Mexico City, according to the doctor.

The ESCAPE study also is similar to studies in the 1940s and ’50s linking lung cancer and smoking, which is still more likely to cause cancer than pollution, he said.

So are asbestos exposure or working in certain industries and environments with large amounts of pollution, he said.

But, he said, “That’s becoming more historic than current. What I see is guys in their 80s who have lung cancer, who, when you look at history, is, ‘Yeah, I worked in these things.’ ”

And air pollution — caused by exhaust from cars or manufacturing, by soot and by other kinds of aerosols — has a direct environmental impact more troubling than its indirect health impact, according to Eric Stromberg of the North Park Public Water District.

It can increase temperatures and rainfall, and even cause acid rain, Stromberg noted.

Still, it’s not the problem it was a decade or two ago, he said, not since amendments were passed in 1990 to the Clean Air Act to address acid rain, ozone depletion and toxic air pollution, and create new standards for gasoline.

Local air quality

And it can vary widely from county to county, according to the American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air report. The annual report gives counties a letter grade based on the amount of particle pollution in the air and the number of high-ozone days they have.

Kane Country received an A in particle pollution and B in high-ozone days, according to the report. Adjacent Cook County received an F in both.

What you can do

“When people hear a study like this, they need to realize these are small, incremental, statistical things. This is not something to cause great panic,” Jordan said.

“The reality of changing this is changing environmental policy. As an individual, there’s not much you can do.”

Cancer is caused by a genetic mutation, not simply by breathing polluted air, according to the doctor. Particles can enter the lungs and cause an inflammatory reaction that can cause the mutation that then can lead to cancer, he said, but he compared it to a gun.

Most people have the safety on, he said. Those with a genetic predisposition to lung cancer have the safety off. Something like smoking or breathing polluted air could be what pulls the trigger, he said.

Still, pollution is much more dangerous to those with lung disease, such as asthma or emphysema, according to Jordan.

They can reduce their exposure by paying close attention to weather reports and avoiding the outdoors on particularly smoggy days like we get most often in the summer, he said.

They also can wear a surgical mask when outside or invest in a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter for the home.

For others, he said, “The potential benefit of that is probably negligible.”

Still, everybody can do their part to reduce the amount of air pollution.

“Anything that reduces your energy consumption — not driving your car as much, not running your air conditioning,” Stromberg said.

“Little things like that add up. It’s not much for the average person — but when you multiply that by 300 million people, it adds up.”

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