Report estimates 10% of all cancers in Europe are caused by pollution


A new report from the European Environmental Agency estimates more than 10 percent of all cancer cases in Europe are likely caused by environmental and occupational exposure to pollution. The report indicates most of these cases could be prevented by improving environmental protections.

The new findings gather data from a number of previously published studies. It is initially estimated that 40 percent of all cancer cases in Europe are related to modifiable risk factors, the majority of which are lifestyle-related: smoking, diet, alcohol etc. However, about one quarter of these cases – amounting to 10 percent of overall cancer cases in Europe – can be attributed to environmental pollutants.

The report breaks these pollutants down into five categories: air pollution, radon and UV radiation, second-hand smoke, asbestos, and chemicals.

Both indoor and outdoor air pollution is linked to two percent of all cancer deaths in Europe. In particular, air pollution is estimated to account for seven percent of all lung cancers. Air pollution in this context encompasses fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 particles) and exposure to pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

UV radiation, primary from the sun causing skin cancers, is thought to account for nearly four percent of all cancer cases in Europe. Radon radiation, on the other hand, is a little more rare, coming from natural granite sources in the ground. Mining causes high occupational exposures to radon radiation, while some ground and lower floor dwellings can expose individuals to higher than average levels.

Second-hand smoke and asbestos are both well-known sources of carcinogens, and both have been the subject of much regulation in recent years. The new report suggests due to the long timeframe from exposure to cancer diagnosis, there are still new cases appearing relating to historic exposures but these rates will hopefully reduce over the coming years.

Exposure to chemical carcinogens is perhaps the least clear category discussed in the new report. It is suggested occupational exposure to chemicals is a big problem in Europe but incredibly challenging to quantify. Some of the listed chemicals in the report range from acrylamide, benzophenones, flame retardants, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and pesticides, to benzene, formaldehyde and silica dust.

“While we have estimates for some substances, we are not certain about the overall contribution of chemical carcinogens to the burden of cancer in Europeans,” the report states. “Many chemicals on the market and in the environment have not undergone exhaustive carcinogenicity testing, and significant knowledge gaps remain on the potential carcinogenic effects of low levels of exposure to combinations of chemicals throughout our lifetime.”

The report outlines a number of interventions that can be implemented to try and reduce exposure from these cancer-causing pollutants. Most of these interventions are directed at policy-makers as the report makes clear it is difficult for individuals to avoid these exposures if they are not stopped by governments at a regulatory level.

“Environmental and occupational cancer risks are inherently preventable, and reducing them is key to reducing the burden of cancer in Europe,” the report concludes. “Moreover, people have limited scope for protecting themselves from most environmental and occupational determinants of cancer, making regulatory intervention and policy implementation especially necessary and relevant. Policy and regulations need to be underpinned by sufficient resources allocated to preventing exposure (including occupational) and reducing pollution.”

Source: European Environment Agency

New Atlas, 28 June 2022