Outlet Full Name: The Wall Street Journal
Author: Laurie Burkitt
Can air pollution cause lung cancer?
That’s the question many in China are asking as they snap up face masks to avoid breathing hazardous particles in the country’s often pewter-colored, polluted skies.
The answer—like the air—isn’t so clear. Health experts like Wang Ning, deputy director of the Beijing Office for Cancer Prevention and Control, say they’ve seen a rise in a certain kind of cancer known as adenocarcinoma—which is characterized by duct formations and the production of mucus that is tied to pollution—according to the China Daily.
But others, including Martin Murphy, founder of cancer-focused nonprofit the CEO Roundtable on Cancer-China, say there isn’t enough scientific evidence to conclude that pollution itself is causing a rise in lung-cancer rates. “We don’t have irrefutable evidence.”
China has seen a surge in cancer in recent years, with about 3.12 million new cases developing annually, according to a 2012 report from the National Central Cancer Registry of China, which collected registry information across China from 2009.
Lung cancer rates in particular have skyrocketed, making China the home to about 32% of the world’s lung-cancer patients, Dr. Murphy estimated. While rates of gastric, esophageal and cervical cancer have declined in China over the last decade, lung-cancer rates are still rising, Dr. Murphy said.
While it isn’t clear whether the chronic smog that perpetually plagues many Chinese cities is to blame, what is clear, Dr. Murphy said, is that smoking compounds any problems tied to air pollution. “We have strong evidence that if you smoke and breathe polluted air, the likelihood of developing cancer is a degree of magnitude greater,” he said.
Air pollution also increases risks for other diseases, especially respiratory and heart diseases, according to the World Health Organization, which classified outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen last year.
Tobacco use is also a leading killer in China. It causes 1.2 million deaths annually and is expected to cause 3.5 million annually by 2030, according to the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation, which based its estimates on figures of 2005 deaths. The country is the world’s largest consumer and producer of tobacco, home to more than 300 million smokers and 43% of the world’s cigarette production.
Dr. Murphy said that cigarettes often augment disease risk. For example, smoking propelled the illness of actor Steve McQueen, who developed a form of cancer known as mesothelioma that is associated with asbestos exposure.
It’s safe to say that “smoking and air pollution are major causes of an increase in cancer mortality,” Dr. Murphy said.