Risk of Lung Cancer Death for Individuals in Polluted Metropolitan Areas Increases 12%, Study Finds
People living in the most heavily polluted metropolitan areas of the United States have a 12% greater risk of dying from lung cancer than those living in the least polluted areas, according to a study published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The Washington Post reports that the study represents the first time that researchers have linked long-term exposure to industrial emissions and sulfate pollutants -- fine particles of air pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants, factories and diesel trucks, among others -- to an increased risk of lung cancer (Pianin, Washington Post, 3/6). The risk of dying from lung cancer due to such pollutants is "similar to that of someone living with a smoker," according to the authors of the study (Revkin, New York Times, 3/6). Researchers from New York, Utah and Canada gathered health data over 16 years on about 500,000 adults living in 156 American cities. The study, which was funded by grants from NIH and other government agencies, was longer and followed more subjects than any previous research of its kind (Polakovic, Los Angeles Times, 3/6). The scientists found that the number of lung-cancer deaths increased 8% for every 10-microgram-per-cubic-foot increase in sulfate pollutants detected in the air. Other heart- and lung-related causes of death increased 6% for every 10-microgram increase (Tanner, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/6).
Previous research by both Harvard University and the American Cancer Society had "strongly linked" sulfate pollutants to high mortality rates from cardiopulmonary diseases; however, the current study sought to address criticism that past research "failed to account for many variables, such as regional disparities and an individual's occupation and diet." In calculating the new results, researchers took into account heart- and lung-disease risk factors such as smoking, diet, weight and occupation (Washington Post, 3/6). Dr. George Thurston, co-author of the study and associate professor of environmental medicine at New York University's School of Medicine, said, "The bad news is that fine-particle air pollution is even more toxic than we thought before. The good news is we are addressing this problem and there are ways we can further reduce this risk, by moving forward with the Clean Air Act and cleaning up these power plants that are a major source" (New York Times, 3/6).
The new findings "could lead to stiffer federal air regulations" and "could strengthen the hand of environmental groups" who oppose relaxing air pollution standards, the Wall Street Journal reports (Fialka, Wall Street Journal, 3/6). In 1997, the EPA issued "tough new standards" that limited the annual average of sulfate pollutants in the air to 15 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the standards, but then remanded them to a lower court for further study (Washington Post, 3/6). Two weeks ago, the Bush administration announced a new anti-smog strategy, which air quality officials criticized as "an attempt to roll back pollution controls." In addition, the EPA's chief of air pollution enforcement resigned last week in protest of Bush policies that he said "weake[n] clean-air rules, particularly those that require power plants to install the most modern emission control equipment" (Los Angeles Times, 3/6). William Becker, head of a Washington, D.C., group that represents state and local air-pollution regulatory agencies, said the new study may lead to "tighter emission controls on trucks and buses" as well as "restrictions on [currently unregulated] off-road vehicles, such as farm tractors and construction equipment" (Wall Street Journal, 3/6). The full text of the study is available online.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.