Report: Air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 6:45 p.m. MDT

In this Aug. 23, 2011 photo, a stretch of the Calif. State Route 99 corridor in the San Joaquin Valley is shown busy with traffic in Fresno, Calif.

Gary Kazanjian, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Air pollution is ugly, and among other things it is now officially being blamed for contributing to lung cancer.

The World Health Organization this month declared smoggy air a certified cancer agent, joining tobacco, asbestos and ultraviolet radiation as culprits adversely affecting health. Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was also classified as being carcinogenic to humans, according to the international organization.

"There is no safe level of air pollution," said Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and president of the nonprofit advocacy group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

Moench said medical research has long provided evidence of the carcinogenic potential of air pollution.

Lung cancer, he said, isn't the only cancer shown to be affected by poor air quality, but it plays a part in "virtually every kind of cancer you could think of."

The latest designation by the World Health Organization, Moench said, should get people to change their thinking about air pollution.

"The health effects of air pollution are far more broad reaching than we've thought in the past," he said, adding that more serious efforts should be made to protect public health.

Air pollution is already known to increase risks for a range of diseases, including respiratory and heart diseases. Diesel fumes have previously been considered dangerous in producing poor air quality, as well as other contaminants.

And a recent Harvard study pointed to air pollution as contributing to an increased risk of babies born with autism.

In Utah, health standards are compromised by poor air quality at least a couple weeks — if not a month or more — every year.

Air quality is specifically affected during the wood-burning season in the state, which typically spans from November to March, according to Donna Spangler, spokeswoman for Utah's Department of Environmental Quality.

Spangler said it is impossible to predict inversion, as it is determined primarily by weather patterns. A lack of precipitation led to a particularly bad inversion in January, when Salt Lake and Davis counties had 14 days that residents were asked to avoid contributing to pollution and 35 when it was mandatory not to.

Cache County, where pollution is often worse, experienced 22 voluntary and 42 mandatory no-burn days in the 2012-13 season. Utah County saw 17 voluntary and 33 mandatory action days.

"We did have more mandatory action days than the previous year," Spangler said. "It was one of our worst because of the winter that we saw, especially in January when we were socked in for two straight weeks."

The department recently changed its air quality monitoring system to be more proactive, indicating no-burn days before particulate levels reach the health standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

"The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances," said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the specialized cancer agency of the World Heath Organization that made the recent recommendation. "We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths."

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death in men and women worldwide. The Utah Department of Health places the respiratory system-attacking disease as the fifth most common cancer in Utah, with more than 580 cases diagnosed annually.

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