British research provides fresh insight into the strong connection between lung cancer and air pollution. Although it has long been recognized that poor air quality is a significant risk factor for people who have lung cancer, its specific impact remains unclear.
Tiny particles found in polluted air interact with the DNA of our body’s cells, changing their genetic makeup. A cell becomes a cancer cell if it gets too many mutations.
According to Charles Swanton, a researcher, mutations alone may not always cause cancer. “Everyone acquires mutations; it’s just a natural part of ageing,” he says. “But our research demonstrates that you need a second phase in the process: an inflammatory reaction which activates the mutant cells.”
That is precisely what occurs when we inhale particulate matter or tiny dust particles that are only slightly larger than human hair. These particles are present everywhere, mainly as a result of combustion engines used in transportation and industrial activities. Small inflammations brought on by inhalation activate the body’s altered cells just as a flame must ignite the gas.
Environmental epidemiologist Tom Nawrot stated that Flanders has recently been successful in lowering particle matter from 20 to 15 micrograms per cubic metre (UHasselt). A significant improvement, but still far higher than the WHO limit of 5 micrograms per cubic metre.
“It will be extremely challenging for a region like Flanders to go below that. If we can get to 10, it would be great. At the bus stop, you used to have to cover your mouth with your hand due to the black smoke the bus left behind. Even though our internal combustion engines are more cleaner now, we still need to develop a civilization that burns less.”
Swanton explains, “These particles are silent murderers. “Our research clearly indicates that we urgently need to reduce the amount of particulate matter in our air,” the author writes. “Almost the entire world population is exposed to fine dust, which is responsible for an estimated 8 to 9 million deaths per year – more than tobacco. It also causes all kinds of heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and so on. Yet we never talk about it.