Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) confirm it: cancer is a constantly growing disease throughout the world and represents the second cause of death globally, with 20 million new diagnoses and 9.7 million deaths in 2022. According to the latest report from the United Nations Agency, new cases will exceed the 35 million threshold in 2050 , marking a growth of 77% compared to 2022.
The causes of this increase are not entirely clear and are probably linked to various factors , reflecting both the aging and demographic growth of the population. However, it is also true that some forms of cancer are more common than others (the most frequent are lung, breast and colorectal cancers), suggesting a change in the population's exposure to some known risk factors. Among these, the WHO specifies, there is air pollution which ” is still a key element among environmental risk factors “.
Thus air pollution affects the increase in cancer cases
In recent years, we have probably all heard of particulate matter at least once, the set of microscopic particles (dust) suspended in the air we breathe. According to experts, the greatest damage is caused by so-called fine particles , the smallest and most dangerous for our health. “ Diesel engine exhausts are one of the main sources of these particles – explained Dr. Emmanuel Ricard, spokesperson for the French League against Cancer – . Finer particles can travel down into the lungs , all the way down to the pulmonary alveoli, tiny sacs located at the end of the lung's respiratory tree structure, where the blood exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide during the process of inhaling and exhaling .”
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The presence of these small particles activates the cells that defend our body , causing inflammation. “ This ends up destroying the tissue cells which, instead of continuing to replicate in a healthy way, will begin to “malfunction”, becoming cancerous – indicated Ricard -. These cancer cells will multiply and form a tumor .”
The other risk factors indicated in the WHO report are not related to air pollution , but associated with socioeconomic and development aspects. These include smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity. However, Dr Ricard notes, it would be wrong to consider these factors individually. A person exposed to more factors will have a greater risk of developing cancer, the expert said, highlighting how existing knowledge about the effects on cancer rates that tobacco and alcohol can have together can also be applied elsewhere. “ We were thus able to find, in the case of lung cancer, genes that were affected as much by cigarettes as by air pollution .”