The news that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) now deems outdoor air pollution as a cause of lung cancer has many in the research community breathing a collective sigh of relief.
“My reaction to this is: Finally,” says Emanuela Taioli, MD, Ph.D., chief of epidemiology at North Shore/LIJ Health System and a long-time American Cancer Society grant reviewer.
The IARC announcement puts air pollution alongside already-known cancer triggers such as smoking and UV radiation. According to Taioli, the IARC decision is a signal that “each country now has to reduce the level of particle and air pollution — so the next step is to see changes in policy and emissions standards.”
For policymakers, there are two messages that came out of the IARC action, says Taioli. The first is that particulate matter, which comes from things such as cars and power plants, causes cancer. The second is that air pollution in general does as well.
Taioli thinks leaders are likely better off prioritizing the particulate matter, which is very high all around the world, because it can be addressed more easily. Air pollution as a mixture “is more complicated to regulate because it has a lot of different carcinogens and it varies a lot based on temperature, humidity, and other [factors].”
Beyond the policy issues, Taioli says that the investigation of the impact of air pollution on humans is not yet done. Her own research, for instance, has shown that due to variations in genes, people react differently to exposure to carcinogens. But, there are a lot of unknowns still.
“We have a lot of data in animals and from small human studies, but we need to still conduct big population studies.” Taioli notes that, for example, “we still don’t know a lot about children and the long-term impact of air pollution on them.”
Taoili is currently investigating lung cancer in women who are nonsmokers to see whether the cancer is caused by something environmental or is related to the metabolism of estrogen — or an interaction between the two factors.
Research such as this is vital to identifying, treating, and ultimately preventing lung cancer, which is responsible for the deaths of more than 150,000 Americans each year and hundreds of thousands more worldwide. And, the IARC notes that globally, in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer were the result of air pollution specifically.