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Lung cancer in non-smokers highlights air pollution risk

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Senior doctors have called for links between air pollution and lung cancer in outdoor workers to be made clearer, following new evidence of large numbers of non-smokers suffering from the disease.


The research estimates that nearly 6,000 people who have never smoked die each year in the UK from lung cancer.

Around 15 per cent of these non-smoker lung cancer cases are due to second-hand smoke. However, occupational carcinogen exposure – such as for people who work outside on busy roads, for example – the rate was 20.5 per cent of lung cancers in male non-smokers. The rate was less for women – just 4.3 per cent of cases. Lung cancer deaths that could be directly linked to air pollution was 8 per cent of the annual total. 

The report in the Journal of Royal Society of Medicine shines a light on the underrated risks of lung cancer, say authors.

“While smoking accounts for 86 per cent of all lung cancers, if considered as a separate entity lung cancer in never-smokers is the eighth most common cancer-related death in the UK, and the seventh most preventable cancer in the world,” said the paper.

The number of deaths in non-smoking-related cancer are greater than deaths from cervical cancer (900 per year) and leukemia (4,500 per year). Authors said that while historically strong, and correct, the messaging on smoking and lung cancer has inadvertently contributed to lung cancer receiving much less attention than other cancers.

British Safety Council has been highlighting the risks to outdoor workers from air pollution via Time to Breathe campaign

The report adds that while these are estimates – it is difficult to identify causes in individual patients due to the ‘overlapping and ubiquitous nature of risk factors and exposures’ – they highlight an awareness gap.

Lead author, Professor Paul Cosford, medical director for Public Health England, said: “For too long having lung cancer has only been thought of as a smoking related disease. This remains an important association but, as this work shows, the scale of the challenge means there is a need to raise awareness with clinicians and policy makers of the other risk factors including indoor and outdoor air pollution.”

Access the study here

Time to Breathe here 

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