Polluting clouds of exhaust fumes rise in the air

When lung cancer is suspected, smoking tobacco is often thought to be the cause — and with good reason: About 80% of lung cancer deaths are linked to smoking.

Although smoking and secondhand smoke exposure are still the primary risk factors for lung cancer, nonsmokers are diagnosed with this deadly disease at significant rates, too.

Evidence shows exposure to radon and workplace chemicals like asbestos can increase your risk of lung cancer, as can genetics. But outdoor air particle pollution, which reduces the quality of the air we breathe, sometimes is overlooked.

Pollution from vehicle exhaust, industrial factories like coal-fired power plants, and even wildfires can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

Lung cancer is among the most common forms of cancer in both men and women, with the American Cancer Society predicting more than 236,700 new cases nationwide in 2022 alone.

Here’s how to check your region’s air quality and limit exposure to this often invisible form of pollution.

What Are the Types of Air Pollution?

Primary air pollutants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.

Particle pollution is a combination of both solid and liquid dust, smoke, dirt, and soot of various sizes that can contain hundreds of different toxic chemicals.

Exposure to air particle pollution is also linked to heart disease, asthma, and early death, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates that hundreds of thousands of global lung cancer deaths are attributable to outdoor air pollution each year. Children and elderly adults are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution, as are those with lung and heart diseases.

Residents in areas with documented air-quality concerns, including the greater Pittsburgh region, may be at higher risk of pollution-related health complications.

In its 2021 “State of the Air” report card, the American Lung Association gave Allegheny County a failing grade for both particle pollution and the number of days when ground-level ozone was high.

Ground-level ozone, or smog, is formed when particle pollution from cars and industrial plants reacts to sunlight, typically on hot summer days, according to the EPA. Inhaling ozone, even at low levels, can irritate the respiratory system. At higher levels, it can damage the lungs and worsen chronic respiratory diseases.

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How Does Air Pollution Cause Lung Cancer?

Your body is designed to clear out larger forms of particle pollution, which can still cause respiratory irritation, through sneezing and coughing.

But smaller particles that you often can’t see can slip by unnoticed. The toxins then embed themselves in the lungs and, sometimes, in the bloodstream, creating a number of health risks, including lung cancer.

How Can I Limit My Exposure To Air Pollution?

As clean air standards evolve nationwide, air pollution levels continue to decrease. The number of new overall lung cancer cases is on the decline, too, as people quit smoking and take preventive steps.

But inhaling toxic air pollutants can still be deadly, especially in urban, populated areas and industry-heavy regions of the United States.

According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, there are a number of ways to limit your exposure to air pollution, including:

  • Reducing the amount of outdoor air circulating into your home.
  • Replacing indoor air filters regularly.
  • Checking your daily color-coded air quality index forecast and limiting time outdoors when quality is poor.
  • Changing your exercise routine or travel plans to avoid major sources of air pollution, such as busy roads or factories.
  • Avoiding burning wood or trash.
  • Avoiding using gas-powered lawn care equipment, when possible.

When in doubt, talk to your doctor about air-quality concerns and what you can do to protect yourself.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.