It's Official: Air Pollution Causes Cancer

The World Health Organization labels air pollution carcinogenic to humans.

October 18, 2013

Air pollution accounts for more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths a year around the world.

Air pollution joins the ranks of asbestos and cigarette smoke as a cancer-causing agent, the World Health Organization recently announced. Calling outdoor air pollution a leading cause of cancer deaths, the organization said it accounted for 220,000 lung cancer deaths throughout the world in 2010.


More than half of those cases were linked to particulate pollution in China and other Eastern Asian countries, likely a result of burning more coal in rapidly developing countries.

Although specific components of air pollutions have been labeled carcinogenic to humans in the past, like diesel exhaust, this is the first time the entire mixture of air pollution has been identified as a leading cause of cancer.

Read More: 11 Hidden Sources of Air Pollution

Scientists have also linked air pollution to bladder cancer, anxiety and depression in children, autism, asthma, and all sorts of other health problems.

There are plenty of other reasons to make curbing air pollution a priority, too.

Burning coal in China is tainting the seafood supply, mining coal in Appalachia brings far more damage than benefit, according to a 2010 study, and scientists have shown air pollution can impact rain patterns (which can threaten the food supply). And the biggie—air pollution is also destabilizing the planet's climate in a dangerous way. In fact, hotter temperatures we're experiencing (thanks to climate change) reacts with air pollution to make even more toxic compounds you can't see with the naked eye. These include "cooking" air pollution spewing from tailpipes and converting it into dangerous smog that makes it harder to breathe.

The only true way to stop the problem is to shift society off of polluting fossil fuels, which will require meaningful government regulations. There are things you can do to lower your exposure levels now, though, too.

• Support clean energy. We need energy, but there's no mandate that it has to be dirty and harm human health and wreck the air, like we see in oil, natural gas, and coal processes. To clear the air, tap into solar energy rebates, and tell your reps to extend clean energy incentives on the residential and commercial levels.

• Exercise with the air in mind. Avoid exercising near busy roadways or smokestacks. For an overall indicator of whether it's a good idea to exercise outside, check your local air quality report. If it's poor, exercise inside in a clean air environment (no perfumes, air fresheners, or harsh cleaners).

• Snuff out wood stoves. Because we hear so much about the cost and pollution associated with coal, oil, and gas, many people are turning to wood-burning stoves. The problem is, this method of energy production creates loads of particulate matter, according to the American Lung Association in Washington, where wood-burning has really caught on fire, pardon the pun. Cleaner forms of energy are best, but if you're set on a wood-burning stove, make sure it's a newer model with high efficiency and low PM pollution.

• Telecommute! Researchers have found that not only does telecommuting greatly benefit both employee and boss, but it also helps cut out air-polluting commutes. To learn how to develop a telecommuting plan and how to draft a formal proposal for your boss, check out our telecommuting tips.

• Compost! Burning leaves and other yard waste creates particulate pollution and other forms of air pollution. Instead, compost untreated yard scraps, and in turn, you'll get an invaluable, natural soil builder for next year's garden!

• Clean green. The fewer harsh chemical cleaning products we all use, the fewer harmful compounds will be floating in the air to bind to particulate matter and enter our lungs, says the American Lung Association in Washington. A good place to start? Learn how to clean green using our non-toxic cleaning recipes.

• Watch out for harmful candles. There are plenty of other good reasons to cut back on air pollution, too. Ditch standard paraffin wax candles that may spew off toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into your indoor air. Instead, stop burning candles in the home or turn to cleaner-burning beeswax candles.