For years, scientists have explored the links between excess air pollution and health conditions, such as heart disease, asthma and even cancer. Recently, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated the specific relationship between air pollution and occurrence of lung cancer in humans. IARC reviewed over 1,000 scientific papers from five continents and concluded that there is a clear relationship between exposure to everyday air pollution and lung cancer.
Based on the results of the evaluation, the WHO officially classifies outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans – listing air pollution alongside other carcinogens like formaldehyde, plutonium and asbestos. According to IARC officials, breathing in polluted air was found to be very similar to breathing in second-hand tobacco smoke, depending on one’s level of exposure. But unlike tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution is often unavoidable.
The most common sources of air pollution are transportation, fossil fuel power plants, industrial and agricultural emissions and residential heating and cooking—all of which are a part of everyday life in most parts of the world. Because almost all of us are exposed to these pollutants, the occurrence for cancer-related death is quite high. In fact, the most recent data indicate that in 2010 alone 223,000 lung cancer deaths resulted from air pollution. The most devastating thing about these numbers is that these are all preventable deaths.
The clear link between lung cancer and air pollution underscores the importance of common-sense limits on air pollution to safeguard human health. The Clean Air Act is the most important tool we have to place meaningful regulations on air pollution. Since 1980, Clean Air Act regulations have reduced total air pollution by 67 percent despite increases in energy use, population and vehicle miles traveled.
Nevertheless, time and time again we hear about Texas officials attacking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over these common sense air pollution regulations. All this despite the fact that Texas’ three largest cities received an “F” in the American Lung Association’s most recent air quality report.
The link between air pollution and health risks has never been clearer thanks to IARC’s latest report. Instead of fighting regulations on air pollution, Texas leaders should champion rules like EPA’s proposed Tier 3 standards on automobile tailpipe emissions and a stronger health-based ozone standard. These standards could go a long way toward reducing air pollution and protecting the health of Texans for generations to come.