Air pollution lung cancer risk for people who don’t smoke
Research findings presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology symposium recently suggest that air pollution can trigger lung cancer in people with no history of smoking because some air pollutant particles may trigger changes in the cells in the airways.
The study shows how fine particles contained in car fumes “awaken” dormant mutations in lung cells and tip them into a cancerous state.
The work is groundbreaking and helps explain why so many non-smokers develop lung cancer and is a wake-up call about the damaging impact of air pollution on our lung health.
The research undertaken in the UK showed:
- Places with higher levels of air pollution had more lung cancers not caused by smoking.
- Breathing in PM2.5 leads to the release of a chemical alarm – interleukin-1-beta – in the lungs.
- This causes inflammation and activates cells in the lungs to help repair any damage.
- But around one in every 600,000 cells in the lungs of a 50-year-old already contains potentially cancerous mutations.
- These are acquired as we age but appear completely healthy until they are activated by the chemical alarm and become cancerous.
Lung cancer is Australia’s biggest cancer killer, responsible for more than 8,000 deaths in 2021. In addition to the impact on cancer incidence, air pollution is linked with respiratory impacts such as respiratory disease, decreased pulmonary function and respiratory infections.
In Australia, air pollution is putting a $16 billion strain on the economy each year, as well as 3,000 premature deaths.
The Lung Foundation Australia’s report on lung cancer 2022-2025 discovered 20 per cent of people who are diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked, with air pollution being recognised as a risk factor.
Last year the World Health Organization published new air quality guidelines which serve as a global target for national, regional and city governments to work towards improving the world’s health by reducing air pollution. Australia is yet to take the guidelines on board.
The Australian State of the Environment report 2021 released a few months ago highlights the dangers of air pollution on our health.
The Institute is fighting for a world where everyone can breathe clean air and have healthy lungs and calls on the Federal Government to set a clear strategy, targets and actions.
The Institute calls on the Federal Government to:
- Fund Australian-specific research in the area.
- Produce a health protection plan for Australia to safeguard those most at risk from the effects of toxic air.
- Fund national public health campaigns on air pollution.
- Roll out a nationwide air-pollution alerts system.
- Commit to inclusive walking and cycling policies that enable everyone to be part of the solution.