Air pollution from vehicle exhaust and other fossil fuel smoke may increase the risk of lung cancer in nonsmokers, according to a new study published Saturday in the European Society for Medical Oncology, adding a new layer to scientists’ understanding of the effects of climate change on human health.
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute and University College London found an increase of 2.5 micrometers of particulate matter led to “rapid changes” in airway cells with a set of mutations called EGFR and KRAS—typically associated with lung cancer—leading them toward a “cancer stem cell like state.”
Those mutations were present in 18%-33% of normal lung tissue samples, however cancers occurred “more quickly” when those lungs were exposed to air pollution, according to the study, which analyzed data on more than 460,000 people in England, South Korea and Taiwan.
The study follows numerous reports linking the effects of fossil fuel emissions from factories, vehicles and other combustion engines to not only rising temperatures but worsened health conditions, including mortality, chronic illness, respiratory illness, as well as mental health.
The lead researcher of the study, Cancer Research U.K. chief clinician Charles Swanton, said the study revealed how the “same particles in the air” that are making climate change worse are also to blame for a “previously overlooked cancer-causing mechanism in lung cells.”
The study comes nearly one year after a World Health Organization report warned decreases in air pollution, including ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, are necessary to “save millions of lives.”
Lung cancer accounts for roughly 1.2 million deaths per year worldwide, according to a report in the British Medical Journal, and while tobacco smoking explains the vast majority of those deaths, air pollution is also a contributor, even at low levels. A 2002 American Cancer Society studyfound the risk of lung cancer grows by roughly 8% with each increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles and sulfur oxide-related pollution. In the U.S., approximately 100 million people live in areas where air pollution exceeds air quality standards, according to a 2018 National Climate Assessment report, which also found those conditions are likely to deteriorate as the planet continues to heat up, triggering adverse respiratory and cardiovascular health effects. The World Health Organization expects that between 2030 and 2050, climate change-induced malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress will lead to roughly 250,000 deaths per year.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Whether the research will lead to preventative measures aimed at targeting pre-cancer lesions in the lungs of people who live in areas with poor air quality. Researchers analyzed the effectiveness of one medicine, an immunosuppressive agent called an interleukin inhibitor, finding that it has the potential to prevent lung cancer initiation.