15th Aug 2022

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)
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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.

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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.


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