World Health Organization Issues Warning on Global Cancer Surge Linked to Air Pollution

World Health Organization Issues Warning on Global Cancer Surge Linked to Air Pollution

World Health Organization Issues Warning on Global Cancer Surge Linked to Air Pollution

New estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest a substantial 77% increase in global cancer cases by 2050.

The report, issued by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer on February 1, predicts around 35 million new cancer cases by 2050, marking a significant surge from 2022. Among the contributing factors to this anticipated rise is air pollution, which, though not universally affecting everyone the same way, is identified as a key driver.

Dr. Emmanuel Ricard, a spokesperson for the French League Against Cancer, emphasized the role of fine particle pollution, particularly from diesel exhaust, as a primary source of concern. Fine particles, capable of reaching deep into the lungs, can lead to cell dysfunction. The body's defense mechanisms attempt to remove these particles, resulting in inflammation that disrupts cell replication, leading to the formation of cancerous cells and tumors.

Several factors contributing to the anticipated increase in cancer cases are unrelated to pollution. The global cancer rate is influenced by population growth, with an increasing number of people on the planet leading to a higher overall incidence of cancer. Additionally, as human life expectancy rises, cancer risk also increases, as immunity tends to decline with age.

The improvement in cancer diagnosis capabilities also plays a role in the perceived increase in cases. Many existing cases, overlooked in the past, are now being detected, contributing to the overall rise in reported cancer cases. There is also the phenomenon of "overdiagnosis," where the presence of cancer cells is sometimes mistaken for cancer itself.

Studies are increasingly exploring potential links between pollution and health deterioration, including mental health concerns. Pollution is even suggested to exacerbate conditions like depression. However, Catherine Hill, a French epidemiologist, cautions that pollution's role in cancer cases is just one aspect, with tobacco and alcohol consumption identified as more significant contributors to cancer in France.

Ricard emphasizes that the risk of cancer is higher for individuals exposed to multiple factors. Understanding the combined impact of factors like tobacco and alcohol consumption can help assess cancer risks more accurately. For instance, research has identified genes impacted similarly by both cigarettes and atmospheric pollution in the case of lung cancer.

The impact of pollution on health is not uniform, as people do not breathe the same air globally. In major cities in China, India, South America, Antananarivo, and Cairo, heavy pollution leads to the development of lung cancer, resembling conditions during England's industrial revolution.

There is a concerning trend of pollution being transferred towards the Global South, serving as a dumping ground for the world. Developing economies often receive low-cost, inferior-quality oil derivatives, contributing to increased pollution levels. Megacities in developing countries experience more aggressive pollution due to diesel fuels with higher sulfur and nitrogen content than those emitted in Europe.

WHO's report sheds light on an epidemiological transition, signaling that countries previously affected by infectious diseases, now in decline, will face a surge in diseases common to Western countries, such as cancer.

In France, air quality has improved over the past three decades, particularly in the Toulouse metropolitan area, where fine particles and nitrogen oxide levels decreased. However, a study in the same region highlights socio-economic disparities, with the economically disadvantaged population more exposed to air pollution, leading to higher concerns about deaths related to long-term exposure.

Xavier Briffault, a researcher in social sciences and epistemology of mental health at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), sees the potential for an ecological wake-up call. By establishing a direct correlation between health and environmental degradation, science could shift the focus from ethical environmental protection to ecological awareness driven by public health concerns. Briffault emphasizes that health is not only an end in itself but also a means in the fight for a greener world. By mobilizing fears related to health, citizens can exert pressure on politicians, emphasizing that pollution is not just harmful to the planet but is also a threat to human lives. The rallying cry against pollution is evolving from a general sentiment that "polluting is bad" to a new logic that "pollution is killing us."

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Azamat Abdoullaev

Tech Expert

Azamat Abdoullaev is a leading ontologist and theoretical physicist who introduced a universal world model as a standard ontology/semantics for human beings and computing machines. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and theoretical physics. 

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