In the News
Thursday, June 8, 2017

Pollution Linked to Lower Odds of Surviving Cancer

Where you live and the quality of the air you breathe can decrease your odds of surviving cancer, according to new research from the University of California, Irvine. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, found that women living in poorer communities and areas with higher ozone air pollution have smaller chances of surviving ovarian cancer.

This study joins existing research reporting a link between pollution and cancer survival rates. For example, a 2015 study by Spain's National Center for Epidemiology found a greater risk of dying from ovarian cancer for women living near industrial facilities such as petrochemical refineries and fertilizer plants.

June 4 was National Cancer Survivors Day, an occasion to celebrate the 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S. whose lives have been sustained by groundbreaking medical research. Advances in early detection and treatment led to survival rates rising by more than 20 percent in the last three decades. But despite improved treatment, cancer survivors remain at increased risk of subsequent cancers – and cancer survival gains are not evenly distributed in different areas of the country.

Better medical technologies for cancer diagnosis and treatment are essential, but we can't stop there. A recent editorial in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet said:

Cancer is a product of both nature and nurture, in which environmental risk is an equally crucial—and often neglected—factor because it is a multisectorial issue …  To eradicate cancer, governments need to both identify and act not only on increased risk susceptibility, but also ensure that people are not exposed to carcinogenic materials through gross environmental mismanagement.

Cancer remains the second most common cause of death, after accidents, for children under 14 years old. Compared to the general public, survivors of childhood cancer are six times more likely to develop cancer again. Risk factors for new cancers among childhood survivors are mainly from radiation and chemotherapy treatments, which can damage healthy cells while killing cancer cells.

Of all childhood cancers, leukemia is the most common, with approximately 3,800 children diagnosed annually in the U.S. Since 1975, there has been a steady increase in the incidence of childhood leukemia – up 55 percent in children 14 and younger over the past three-and-a-half decades.

Environmental causes – such as exposures to pesticides, tobacco smoke, solvents and traffic emissions – increase the risk of developing childhood leukemia. Communities known to suffer more from pollution, such as the Latino population in California, are also those in which greatest rises in leukemia incidence are reported.

Individuals can improve their chances of avoiding or surviving cancer through lifestyle choices like not smoking, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and exercising. But to improve survival rates in the general population – and reduce survival inequities resulting from income and geographical disparities – we must remove hazardous contaminants from air, water, food and consumer products.