We have long since been aware that air pollution is certainly not beneficial for our health but the severity of the health consequences is only just being truly discovered. A groundbreaking study was released in September 2021 that uncovered the link between polluting fumes and lung cancer that may be able to help explain why so many non-smokers develop the disease.
Scientists found that car fumes contain a particle called PM2.5 which can “awaken” dormant mutations in lung cells which can trigger them into a cancerous state. The currently unpublished research presented by Charles Swanton at the European Society for Medical Oncology's annual conference in Paris, is a wake up call to the damaging impact of air pollution on our health.
Lung cancer has previously been associated with smoking but this did not explain why people who have never been smokers still suffer with the life threatening disease. This research is horrifying because as a society we are unable to control the air we breathe, unlike how we are able to control if we choose to smoke or not.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide, in 2020 an estimated 1,796,000 people died from the disease with 300,000 of them a result of the PM2.5 particle which is emitted in both car fume and fossil fuel combustion.
The project was a part of a £14mn Cancer Research programme to understand how lung cancer begins and progresses. 400,000 people in the UK, Taiwan, South Korea were examined. They found that the prolonged exposure to the PM2.5 pollution particles led to increased risk of mutation of the EGFR gene. This discovery is revolutionary for cancer research, it fills a huge gap in cancer knowledge and may mean that treatment can be created to prevent the mutation of the cancerous gene or medication can be developed to treat existing cases.
The research brings to light a major climate issue that may have been being brushed under the carpet too easily. Five times as many people are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution on a daily basis than tobacco. Individuals who have actively avoided tobacco substances for fear of lung cancer cannot avoid breathing the air that our cars and power plants have polluted. Climate health is now directly related to human health which means we have to invest as much time and money into healing our climate as we do into our people.
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