Air pollution and cancer: Exploring the link

The smoke from wildfires and semitruck diesel fumes is air pollution you can see and smell. But even when you don’t see smoke, air — especially in urban areas — can be filled with cancer-causing substances. Chemical emissions from factories, exhaust from vehicles and airplanes, and extensive use of pesticides all contribute to creating poor air quality that impacts your health. 
“As much as there has been progress in the U.S. to reduce pollution, the vast majority of people are still exposed to unhealthy air contaminants,” said James Lacey Jr., Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Division of Health Analytics within the Department of Computational and Quantitative Medicine at Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope.

Air Pollution Causes Cancer

Because of its ability to affect health, outdoor air pollution is considered a carcinogen (a substance cable of causing cancer) by the World Health Organization. Although it doesn’t contribute to cancer risk as much as other factors like smoking or obesity, inhaling dirty air is so commonplace and widespread, it’s the leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.

How Poor Air Quality Affects Health

When you breathe in pollutants, they’re hitting your tissues and affecting your upper respiratory system,” Lacey said. “They may also damage genetic material, which kick-starts the process of cancer.”
Usually our genes have the ability to repair themselves, but pollutants can seemingly alter the ability of genes to self-correct. The body also works to rid itself of toxins and reduce their harmful effects. In doing so, multiple organs may sustain damage in the process.

The Effect of Wildfires on Air Quality

When wildfires rage, they fill the air with even more pollutants. Fires in urban areas are especially toxic because they’re burning buildings, plastics and other human-built components that contain chemical compounds dangerous to health.
If there’s any sort of silver lining with fires, it’s that the duration of exposure to wildfire smoke tends to be short,” Lacey said, “unlike living in densely populated cities, where you’re inhaling polluted air day in and day out for years, maybe decades, on end.”

Ways to Avoid Pollution

  • Check your area’s air quality index to learn when pollution is at its worst.
  • Limit your outdoor activities on poor air quality days.
  • Keep windows and doors closed when the air quality is poor.
  • Talk to your doctor about a lung screening if you have an increased lung cancer risk.
“The more you can reduce your exposure to air pollution, the better your upper respiratory system, lungs and overall health will be,” Lacey said.

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