Pollution and lung cancer: Researchers studied data of 400,000 people and found a strong connection

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A team of international scientists probing how air pollution causes lung cancer in people who never smoked signaled a breakthrough in research that could fundamentally change how doctors understand and treat the condition.

Analyzing data from more than 400,000 people, the researchers found fine particulate pollution, known as PM2.5, spurred the activation of cancer-carrying mutations in lung cells.

The findings were presented by Professor Charles Swanton of the Francis Crick Institute at the European Society for Medical Oncology conference in Paris on Saturday.

“Cells with cancer-causing mutations accumulate naturally as we age, but they are normally inactive,” said Swanton in a release. “We’ve demonstrated that air pollution wakes these cells up in the lungs, encouraging them to grow and potentially form [tumors].”

Smoking, by far, is the leading cause of lung cancer; however, recent research has highlighted the negative effects of air pollution from sources like vehicle emissions on lung and cardiovascular health.

The latest study focused on the theory that PM2.5 — microscopic pollution particles — causes lung inflammation that triggers normally inactive cells, creating a cascading effect that leads to the development of tumors.

Specifically, the scientists inspected epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutant lung cancer, a form of cancer found in people who do not smoke.

Tracking health information from nearly half-a-million people, the study found higher rates of this form of lung cancer and others in areas with high PM2.5 pollution levels.

The team also exposed mice with cells carrying the EGFR mutations in their lungs to air pollution levels found in varying cities and discovered cancers were more likely to start in cells carrying the genetic alterations.

“According to our analysis, increasing air pollution levels increases the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancers of the mouth and throat,” said co-first author and postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute, Dr. Emilia Lim, in a release,

“This finding suggests a broader role for cancers caused by inflammation triggered by a carcinogen like air pollution,” added Lim. “Even small changes in air pollution levels can affect human health.”

Air pollution has been tied to a long list of health issues, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Staten Island’s North Shore, which faces an unequal burden of air pollution compared to the rest of the Island, experiences disproportionate death rates to lung and heart issues.

Nationally, research published earlier this year found Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Latinos, and low-income populations are experiencing higher levels of PM2.5 pollution compared to areas overrepresented by white and Native American populations.

Cancer Research United Kingdom’s Chief Executive Michelle Mitchell said the new research demonstrates the importance of uncovering the underlying mechanisms driving cancer in people who have never smoked.

“Only by improving our fundamental understanding of the biology of lung cancer will we be able to offer better diagnosis and treatment, regardless of whether someone’s lung cancer is caused by smoking, air pollution or something else,” said Mitchell.