LONDON (AP) — What many commuters choking on smog have long suspected has finally been scientifically validated: air pollution causes lung cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer declared on Thursday that air pollution is a carcinogen, alongside known dangers such as asbestos, tobacco and ultraviolet radiation. The decision came after a consultation by an expert panel organized by IARC, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, which is based in Lyon, France.
“The air most people breathe has become polluted with a complicated mixture of cancer-causing substances,” said Kurt Straif, head of the IARC department that evaluates carcinogens. He said the agency now considers pollution to be “the most important environmental carcinogen,” ahead of second-hand cigarette and cigar smoke.
IARC had previously deemed some of the components in air pollution such as diesel fumes to be carcinogens, but this is the first time it has classified air pollution in its entirety as cancer causing.
The risk to the individual is low, but Straif said the main sources of pollution are widespread, including transportation, power plants, and industrial and agricultural emissions.
Air pollution is a complex mixture that includes gases and particulate matter, and IARC said one of its primary risks is the fine particles that can be deposited deep in the lungs of people.
“These are difficult things for the individual to avoid,” he said, while observing the worrying dark clouds from nearby factories that he could see from his office window in Lyon on Wednesday. “When I walk on a street where there’s heavy pollution from diesel exhaust, I try to go a bit further away,” he said. “So that’s something you can do.”