Air pollution photo from Shutterstock

It’s official – air pollution causes cancer. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) just announced that air pollution is a carcinogen – the same term applied to hazards like asbestos, tobacco smoke and ultraviolet radiation. The risk to the individual is low, says the agency, though it is virtually unavoidable. “You can choose not to drink or not to smoke, but you can’t control whether or not you’re exposed to air pollution. You can’t just decide not to breathe,” says Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatics at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.

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The sources of air pollution are everywhere – including fossil fueled vehicles, power plants and industrial and agricultural emissions. Air pollution is made up of gases and particulate matter, which present a great risk when they are breathed in and deposited deep in people’s lungs. Research already established that air pollution boosts chances for heart and respiratory diseases, but this is the first time it has been found to be a carcinogen as well. The expert panel came to their decision after scientists analyzed more than 1000 studies worldwide and concluded that there was enough evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. In 2010, the IARC recognized that there were more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths around the world linked to air pollution. The agency also found a link between air pollution and a heightened risk of bladder cancer.

Kurt Straif, head of the IARC department that evaluates cancer-causing substances, said that there are dramatic differences in air quality between cities around the world. The most polluted places are found in China and India, where people are often seen wearing masks. Masks may help a little, says Straif, but what is needed is collective international action by governments to improve air quality. The World Health Organization and the European Commission are already reviewing their recommended limits on air pollution, he says.

Via NBC News

Photos by Flamelai (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons and by High Contrast (Own work) [CC-BY-2.0-de], via Wikimedia Commons