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The Link Between Air Pollution and Cancer

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Alyssa Mae Singson · Updated Jan 11, 2021

    The Link Between Air Pollution and Cancer

    One of the most concerning environmental issues our country is facing today is Manila air pollution. Air pollution is the presence of harmful particulates in the air, a mixture of soot, smoke, mold, pollen, methane, and carbon dioxide, among many others, that can be harmful to human health. Air pollution is a leading cause of cancer.

    Not only is air pollution an environmental issue, undesirable air quality is also a health hazard. Short-term effects of air pollution include sneezing, coughing, eye irritation, headaches, and dizziness. 

    Long-term effects, on the other hand, include cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory illnesses, and  allergies.

    Air Pollution is a Leading Cause of Cancer

    In 2013, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared outdoor air pollution to be a cancer-causing agent, also known as carcinogen.

    Prior to this conclusion, the IARC had already classified many different components of air pollution as carcinogens, such as diesel engine exhaust and dust, as well as particulate matter (extremely small solid particles or liquid droplets found in the air).

    The IARC conclusion was based on more than 1,000 scientific papers from studies across five continents. And according to the IARC, the major sources of outdoor air pollution come from emissions from the transportation sector, the industrial and agricultural sector, power generation, and residential heating and cooking. 

    In the same year, an eight-year old girl was declared to be China’s youngest ever lung cancer patient. According to the American Lung Association, her doctor said that her lung cancer was because of the significant increase of air pollution in China.

    The Philippines: ‘Among the World’s Most Polluted Countries’

    In 2018, the Philippines was declared by the World Health Organization as the  country with the third highest number of deaths due to air pollution with 45.3 deaths per 100,000 individuals. In February of 2020, the Philippines ranked 57th out of 98 in IQAir’s “World’s Most Polluted Countries” of 2019.

    The Philippines’ 2019 particulate pollution (PM2.5) levels was recorded at an average of 17.6 micrograms per cubic meter (μ/mᶟ), higher than the recorded 14.6μ/mᶟ in 2018. 

    Particulate matter PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers – about 3% of the diameter of a strand of human hair. Visibility is harder and the skies look hazy when there are high levels of particulate matter in the air.

    The safety limit for pollution, according to the World Health Organization, is 10 μg/mᶟ, meaning the Philippines’ 17.6μg/mᶟ  has exceeded safe levels.

    The Philippines’ pollution levels are ranked “moderate” on the US Air Quality Index

    The Philippines’ pollution levels are ranked “moderate” on the US Air Quality Index. This means that sensitive individuals are recommended to avoid outdoor activity, as breathing the air outside may cause respiratory symptoms.

    And while the Philippines ranked lowest in the level of pollution in Southeast Asia, most of the cities included in the study exceeded WHO’s safety limit.

    Only the cities of Carmona and Calamba were within the safety limit, with pollution levels of 9.1 μg/mᶟ and 4 μg/mᶟ, respectively. As stated by ABS-CBN News: Manila has an average particulate pollution of 18.2 μg/m3, Meycauayan with 35.3 μg/m3, Dumaguete with 27.7 μg/m3, Bulacan with 26.9 μg/m3, Cavite City with 26.6 μg/m3, Batangas City with 12.9 μg/m3, Balanga with 11.4 μg/m3 and Legazpi with 11.3 μg/m3.

    Air Pollution is a Leading Cause of Cancer: Who is at Risk?

    According to Dr. Norman Edelman of the American Lung Association, “Anyone who lives where particle pollution levels are high is at risk. Some people face higher risk, including children, the elderly, people with lung and heart disease and diabetes, people with low incomes, and people who work or exercise outdoors.’

    Genetics also play a huge factor in determining a person’s risk for lung cancer. Though genetics are already a risk factor, air pollution is leading cause of cancer that increases this risk. 

    According to the American Cancer Society, people who have immediate family members that were diagnosed with lung cancer at a young age are at a higher danger, though it is not clear how much of the risk is due to genetics and how much is from shared household exposures.

    Lung cancer can go undiagnosed for a long time. And since symptoms typically do not manifest early, it can result in late diagnosis.

    Because there are fewer nerve endings in the lungs, the growth of a tumor in the lungs can often be painless.

    Air Pollution is a Leading Cause of Cancer, such as Lung Cancer

    Watch out for the following symptoms:

    • a cough that does not go away or gets worse over time 
    • hoarseness in the voice 
    • constant chest pain 
    • shortness of breath or wheezing 
    • frequent lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia
    • coughing up blood

    In addition, since symptoms do not show until late, there are cases when the cancer has spread to the other parts of the body. This can manifest in other symptoms such as:

  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • headaches
  • bone pain or fractures
  • blood clots
  • Lung cancer is diagnosed through a series of tests.

    • Imaging or radiology tests detect the presence of cancer, to see how far it has spread, and to see whether the treatment is working.
    • Endoscopy procedures, on the other hand, are when a doctor puts a tube-like instrument into the body to look inside. A typical endoscopy procedure for those having lung trouble is a bronchoscopy.
    • Other times, doctors will require biopsy and cytology tests to better see the cancer cells.

    Treatment is always available, and is done several ways, depending on the type of cancer and how far it has spread.

    • Surgery is one option, where doctors will remove the affected area
    • Chemotherapy shrinks or kills the cancer cells
    • Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to kill off the cancer
    • Targeted therapy is when special medicines are given to block the growth and spread of cancer

    Key Takeaways

    Local environmental groups called on the Philippine government to take immediate steps to improve the quality of air in the country. Greenpeace Southeast Asia reported that toxic emissions cost Filipinos as much as 1.9% GDP loss and 27,000 premature deaths.

    The group also suggested for the government to declare air pollution as a national issue. They also urged the government to update the Clean Air Act. This includes a transition plan for our industries to stop the use of coal energy and fossil fuels. According to the CEO of IQAir, Frank Hammes, “While the new coronavirus is dominating international headlines, a silent killer is contributing to nearly 7 million deaths a year: air pollution.”

    Collective effort is needed to change the fact that air pollution is a leading cause of cancer. And we can always help make the community a better place to live and breathe in. Don’t smoke, and walk whenever you can to reduce the number of cars on the road.

    Urge your local and national government to create ordinances that address air pollution.  Lower your risk for lung cancer and stay indoors as much as possible, avoid secondhand smoke, and wear a mask when going outdoors. Remember, it is polluted outside, and you can never be too safe. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Alyssa Mae Singson · Updated Jan 11, 2021

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