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Does Air Pollution Cause Lung Cancer?

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Updated October 01, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Does Air Pollution Cause Lung Cancer?
Answer:

Probably.

It has long been suspected that air pollution may cause lung cancer. Studies of geographical differences in the risk of lung cancer reveal that lung cancer is more common in urban areas and less common in rural areas. Still, it has been uncertain whether air pollution is the culprit, or other factors that vary between people who live in urban versus rural areas.

When there is a question, it can be helpful to look at the science behind the theory. Studies have shown that exposure to air pollution can cause "oxidative stress," that is, damage to the cells of the body caused by oxidation. This in turn can lead to the development of cancer.

Studies in the United States, Europe, and Asia have suggested that air pollution from traffic and the combustion of coal, diesel fuel, and wood, has a modest association with lung cancer risk. In a 2009 U.S. study, it was estimated that 5% of male lung cancers and 3% of lung cancers in women between 1970 and 1994 were related to air pollution. One study looking at urban air pollution in Europe suggests that the risk may be higher, with up to 10.7% of lung cancer cases considered related to exposure to air pollution.

Further Reading:

Sources:

Boffetta, P. Human cancer from environmental pollutants: the epidemiological evidence. Mutation Research. 2006. 608(2):157-62.

Grant, W. Air pollution in relation to U.S. cancer mortality rates: an ecological study; likely role of carbonaceous aerosols and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Anticancer Research. 2009. 29(9):3537-45.

Moller, P. et al. Air pollution. Oxidative damage to DNA, and carcinogenesis. Cancer Letters. 2008. 266(1):84-97.

Raaschou-Nielson, O. et al. Air pollution from traffic and risk for lung cancer in three Danish cohorts. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention. 2010. 19(5):1284-91.

Raaschou-Nielsen, O. et al. Lung Cancer Incidence and Long-Term Exposure to Air Pollution from Traffic. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2011 Jan 12. (Epub ahead of print).

Turner, M. et al. Long-Term Ambient Fine Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Lung Cancer in a Large Cohort of Never Smokers. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Published ahead of print on October 6, 2011.

Yorifuji, T. et al. Long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution and mortality in Shizuoka, Japan. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2010. 67(2):111-7.

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