Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths

WHO’s specialized cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced today that it has classified outdoor air pollution and one of its major components, particulate matter (PM), as carcinogenic to human beings. After thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature, the world’s leading experts, convened by IARC, concluded that sufficient evidence shows that exposure to outdoor air pollution and PM causes lung cancer. They also noted a positive association between such pollution and an increased risk of bladder cancer.

New evidence underlines need to revise air-pollution legislation

The evidence released by IARC today reveals the urgent need to take action at the local, regional and global levels to reduce the health threat posed by outdoor air pollution.

At its most recent meeting, earlier this year, the European Environment and Health Ministerial Board called on all countries:

  • to develop policies and implement measures to improve air quality to meet WHO guidelines;
  • to implement the European Union (EU) legislation on air quality in full, with stricter values for air-pollution limits; and
  • to ratify and fully implement the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.

The Board meets regularly, bringing together ministers from the health and environment sectors to address important issues in the WHO European Region.

Evidence published by WHO/Europe earlier this year, as part of the international project to review evidence on health aspects of air pollution (REVIHAAP), confirmed the importance of outdoor air pollution as a risk factor for health, and strengthened the causal link between fine particles (PM2.5) and cardiovascular and respiratory ill health. It also showed that long-term exposure to PM2.5 can trigger a range of problems, such as atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases, and suggested possible links with neurological development, cognitive function and diabetes.

IARC’s recent classification provides indisputable evidence that air pollution is carcinogenic, and adds to the compelling evidence for taking action to improve air quality in order to reduce this important burden of disease in Europe.