STUDY: Fossil Fuel Pollution Likely Accelerates Lung Cancer

September 10, 2022 news headlines spelled it out:

“The latest work unveils this mechanism through a series of meticulous experiments showing that cells carrying dormant mutations can turn cancerous when exposed to PM2.5 particles. The pollutant is the equivalent of the ignition spark on a gas hob. The team analysed samples of healthy lung tissue, taken during patient biopsies, and found that the EGFR mutation was found in one in five of the normal lung samples. This suggests that we all carry dormant mutations in our cells that have the potential to turn into cancer – and chronic exposure to air pollution increases the odds of that happening.”
The Guardian – Cancer breakthrough is a ‘wake-up’ call on danger of air pollution

“It’s a wake-up call on the impact of pollution on human health. You cannot ignore climate health. If you want to address human health, you have to address climate health first. Air pollution is associated with lung cancer but people have largely ignored it because the mechanisms behind it were unclear… these new data link the importance of addressing climate health to improving human health.”

Prof. Charles Swanton of the Francis Crick Institute
Through a series of detailed human and animal experiments they showed:
  • Places with higher levels of air pollution had more lung cancers not caused by smoking
  • Breathing in PM2.5 leads to the release of a chemical alarm – interleukin-1-beta – in the lungs
  • This causes inflammation and activates cells in the lungs to help repair any damage
  • But around one in every 600,000 cells in the lungs of a 50-year-old already contains potentially cancerous mutations
  • These are acquired as we age but appear completely healthy until they are activated by the chemical alarm and become cancerous
  • Source: BBC News – Air pollution cancer breakthrough will rewrite the rules

Air pollution has been linked to variety of health problems, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and dementia. But how it causes cancer to start in people who have never smoked has been a mystery up to now. Many environmental agents, such as UV light and tobacco smoke, cause damage to the structure of DNA, creating mutations which cause cancer to start and grow. But no evidence could be found that air pollution directly mutates DNA, so scientists looked for a different explanation. They investigated the theory that PM2.5, tiny particles around 3% of the width of a human hair, causes inflammation in the lungs which can lead to cancer. Inflammation wakes up normally inactive cells in the lungs which carry cancer-causing mutations. The combination of cancer-causing mutations and inflammation can trigger these cells to grow uncontrollably, forming tumours. The scientists examined a type of lung cancer called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutant lung cancer. Mutations in the EGFR gene are commonly found in lung cancer in people who have never smoked.  They examined data taken from over 400,000 people from the UK and Asian countries, comparing rates of EGFR mutant lung cancer in areas with different levels of PM2.5 pollution. They found higher rates of EGFR mutant lung cancer, as well as higher rates of other types of cancer, in people living in areas with higher levels of PM2.5 pollution. Source – Francis Crick Institute

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.” 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.

Reporter Brian Bushard | FORBES | September 10, 2022

MORE: Harder To Breathe: Air Quality has Worsened Since 2016
In the United States, annual average levels of fine particulate matter — PM2.5, a measure of solid particles and liquid droplets that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller found in the air — declined 24% from 2009 to 2016, then increased 5% between 2016 to 2018. A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is published as an NBER working paper.

Air pollution from fracking killed an estimated 20 people in Pennsylvania from 2010-2017: Study
One of fracking’s byproducts is particulate matter pollution, also referred to as PM 2.5, which consists of tiny, airborne particles of chemicals that, when inhaled, make their way into the lungs and bloodstream, increasing cancer risk and causing heart and respiratory problems. Exposure to PM 2.5 kills an estimated 20,000 Americans each year. Previous studies have found that heavily-fracked communities face higher rates of numerous health effects including preterm births, high-risk pregnancies, asthma, and cardiovascular disease—but this is the first to investigate the direct relationship between the local increase in PM 2.5 caused by fracking and deaths from respiratory and heart issues that can be attributed to that increase. Reporter Kristina Marusic | Environmental Health News | June 5, 2020

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