Does Air Pollution Cause Lung Cancer?

What Percent of Lung Cancer is Caused by Air Pollution?

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.

What the Research Says

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.

Aside from possibly contributing to lung cancer risk, a 2016 study found that air pollution may also decrease survival among those who have lung cancer.

The impact of air pollution on survival was most pronounced among those with early stage lung cancers and those with lung adenocarcinoma.

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