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.
The most recent data show that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer resulted from air pollution worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
The group now puts the dangers of air pollution above that of secondhand smoke. And despite Utah's low rate of tobacco use — another known carcinogen — the state has a high rate of lung cancer, which is largely attributed to radon gas.
The main sources of outdoor air pollution are transportation, power plants, industrial and agricultural emissions, and residential heating and cooking using wood-burning stoves.
Moench said eliminating exposure to wood-burning stoves is an important way people can protect themselves. Another method, he said, involves consumption of anti-inflammatory agents, be it food or drug forms, as well as others, as air pollution creates an inflammatory response in people.
Using the proper air filters and never idling a vehicle, Moench said, are also ways that people can impact air pollution levels.
Upon studying available research on air pollution in 2007, Moench, said he and his medical colleagues decided to take air pollution more seriously and "do whatever we can to fight it."
He said despite knowing that living in northern Utah could shorten his life expectancy, he's willing to make that sacrifice "to make the community a better place."
Moench's mother died of pneumonia during one particularly bad Utah winter inversion, which only heightened his concern for the environment.
"I know what it is doing to me, and I'm not happy about it," he said, "but I'm trying to get that message out there and hopefully motivate and compel people to start taking it more seriously."
The American Lung Association consistently ranks Utah in the top 10 states with the worst air quality in the country in acute spikes of air pollution, which occur during winter inversion and during summertime wildfire seasons. Otherwise, the state experiences average air pollution levels when compared with the rest of the nation.
The largest worldwide producers of air pollution are cities in China and India.
However, air pollution produced anywhere essentially affects air quality everywhere, according to the World Health Organization, which, along with the European Commission, is reviewing its recommended limits on air pollution.
The average air pollution along the Wasatch Front, Moench said, increases lung cancer risk by 14 percent to 25 percent. And as with many cancers, he said, lung cancer can result in a painful death.
"It is basically a slow smothering to death," Moench said. "Of all the ways you could go, that's one of the least pleasant ways to go."
But public health consequences of air pollution, he said, "go far beyond mortality."
"Air pollution breathed now by prospective parents can impact the health of their children, grandchildren and potential generations to come," Moench said.9 comments on this story
For the average person, however, cancer risk from pollution is low, but unavoidable. Risk levels vary depending on a number of variables, such as a person's genetics, exposure to dangerous substances, and lifestyle choices, including alcohol consumption, tobacco use and physical activity.
"Classifying outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans is an important step," said Dr. Christopher Wild, International Agency for Research on Cancer director. "There are effective ways to reduce air pollution, and given the scale of the exposure affecting people worldwide, this report should send a strong signal to the international community to take action without delay."