Air pollution, breast cancer risk, and the need for political action

Addressing air pollution and breast cancer risk: The political imperative.

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In Lugano, Switzerland, a study at the ESMO Congress 2023 in Madrid found that women in areas with more air pollution, where they live and work, have a higher chance of getting breast cancer than those in cleaner areas.

Professor Béatrice Fervers, Head of the Prevention Cancer Environment Department, Léon Bérard Comprehensive Cancer Centre, France, said, “Our data showed a statistically significant association between long-term exposure to fine particle air pollution, at home and work, and risk of breast cancer. This contrasts with previous research, which looked only at fine particle exposure where women lived and showed small or no effects on breast cancer risk.”

A study looked at 2,419 women with breast cancer and 2,984 without it from 1990 to 2011. The results found that when women were exposed to more fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) – like the difference between rural and city areas in Europe – their breast cancer risk increased by 28%. 

There were also smaller increases in risk with more considerable particle pollution (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide. Researchers plan to study how pollution during commuting affects breast cancer risk. Professor Charles Swanton, known for research on PM2.5 and lung cancer, emphasized the importance of these findings for breast cancer.

He said, “These tiny particles can penetrate deep into the lung and get into the bloodstream, where they are absorbed into breast and other tissues. There is already evidence that air pollutants can change the architecture of the breast (3,4). It will be important to test if pollutants allow cells in breast tissue with pre-existing mutations to expand and drive tumor promotion possibly through inflammatory processes, similar to our observations in non-smokers with lung cancer.” 

 “It is very concerning that small pollutant particles in the air and microplastic particles of similar size are getting into the environment when we don’t yet understand their potential to promote cancer. There is an urgent need to set up laboratory studies to investigate the effects of these small air pollutant particles on the latency, grade, aggression, and progression of breast tumors,” he added.

Professor Jean-Yves Blay, in charge of public policy at ESMO, emphasized the strong evidence linking PM2.5 particles to cancer. He mentioned that reducing pollution is vital to prevent cancer for health and economic reasons.

In response to a European Commission proposal in October 2022, ESMO called for even stricter limits on PM2.5 particles in the air, lowering it to 5 µg/m3 in line with the World Health Organization’s guidelines. This is crucial because PM2.5 particles are linked to various tumors, including breast cancer. 

Blay stressed the need for this change, not only in Europe but globally, given the differences in pollution levels worldwide. The European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety Committee adopted the lower limit in June 2023.

In conclusion, this study reinforces the need for immediate political action to address air pollution and its impact on breast cancer risk. It is a crucial step toward a healthier and safer environment for women and communities everywhere. Public health initiatives and policies aimed at reducing air pollution will improve the quality of life and contribute to the prevention of breast cancer and other associated health risks.

The findings are presented at the ESMO Congress 2023 in Madrid, Spain.

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