11th Dec 2023

Pollution causes 10% of cancer cases in Europe, EU report finds

  • While the EU set legally-binding air quality standards to tackle air pollution in 2015, the vast majority of the population in Europe is still exposed to air pollutant concentrations above the international air quality guidelines (Photo: Skaja Lee)
Listen to article

Exposure to air pollution, radioactive radon, ultraviolet radiation, asbestos, some chemicals and other pollutants causes over 10 percent of all cancer cases in Europe, a report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) revealed on Tuesday (28 June).

With more than three million new patients and 1.3 million deaths each year, cancer has become one of the main priorities of the European Commission in the health domain — prompting legislative proposals to reduce air and water pollution, in a bid to reduce human exposure to environmental cancer risks.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

EEA chief Hans Bruyninckx said that cutting pollution would be "an effective investment" in citizens' well-being.

"We see the impact pollution in our environment has on the health and quality of life of European citizens and that is why preventing pollution is so crucial to our wellbeing," he said in a statement.

Air pollution itself is attributable to around one percent of all cancer cases, in particular of the lung, and around two percent of all cancer deaths in Europe.

But recent studies have also found a link between long-term exposure to particulate matter (a type of air pollutant) and leukaemia, the EEA says.

While the EU set legally-binding air quality standards to tackle air pollution in 2015, the vast majority of the population in Europe is still exposed to air pollutant concentrations above the international air quality guidelines by the World Health Organization.

There are currently 29 ongoing infringement procedures, against 18 member states, for failing to implement current EU air quality rules.

It is estimated that reducing air pollution to WHO-recommended levels in the EU could prevent 51,213 premature deaths each year.

Nevertheless, other environmental factors are also linked to cancer.

Cancer and climate change

Exposure to toxic radon emission in buildings is linked to up to two percent of cancer cases, while ultraviolet radiation — mostly emitted by the sun — is estimated to be responsible for up to four percent of all cases in Europe.

Cases of malignant melanomas, a type of skin cancer, have increased in Europe over the last decades.

But Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany recorded the highest number of new melanoma cases in Europe in 2020, according to recent studies.

And the EEA notes that rising temperatures associated with climate change may prompt people to spend more time outdoors, leading to an increase in UV radiation exposure.

"Without additional prevention measures, an increase in UVR levels in Europe would be likely to result in an increase in skin cancer," the Copenhagen-based agency warned.

Chemical pollution

Additionally, exposure to asbestos and certain chemicals, such as PFAS and hazardous pesticides, are also listed by the EEA as risk factors in driving cancer.

While the EU banned asbestos in 2005, many workers involved in buildings renovation and demolition are exposed to high levels of these carcinogens — with asbestos estimated to account for 55-88 percent of all work-related lung cancers.

Likewise, a significant proportion of exposure to chemicals takes place in the workplace — with estimates suggesting that some 17 percent of EU workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals at least a quarter of their working time.

Overall, 34 million toxic chemicals are produced and consumed every year in the EU.


EU 'Beating Cancer Plan' must not ignore deadliest type

A person diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can expect to live for one more year at most. This disease has a lower survival rate than any other cancer in Europe, with more than 95 percent of patients dying because of it.

Air pollution in many EU cities 'stubbornly high'

Many European citizens are still exposed to illegal and dangerous levels of pollution, especially badly in Italy and Poland, new data from the European Environment Agency revealed.

EU air quality improves, but pollution levels still high

The last decade has seen air quality improvements across the continent, but many European citizens are still exposed to illegal and dangerous levels of pollution, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency.


The EU's U-turn on caged farm animals — explained

A European citizens' initiative — signed by 1.4 million people — saw the EU Commission promise to ban cages for 300 million farmed animals. Then the farming lobby got involved.


'Pay or okay?' — Facebook & Instagram vs the EU

Since last week, Mark Zuckerberg's Meta corporation is forcing its European users to either accept their intrusive privacy practices — or pay €156 per year to access Facebook and Instagram without tracking advertising.

Latest News

  1. How Moldova is trying to control tuberculosis
  2. Many problems to solve in Dubai — honesty about them is good
  3. Sudanese fleeing violence find no haven in Egypt or EU
  4. How should EU reform the humanitarian aid system?
  5. EU suggests visa-bans on Israeli settlers, following US example
  6. EU ministers prepare for all-night fiscal debate
  7. Spain's Nadia Calviño backed to be EIB's first female chief
  8. Is there hope for the EU and eurozone?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us