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Scientists Show Link between Air Pollution and Lung Cancer

Fine particles that come from car fumes can cause dormant lung cell mutations to become cancerous. This is what scientists discovered through a study that Cancer Research UK funded. 

Presented at the ESMO Conference by Cancer Research UK chief clinician Professor Charles Swanton, the long-term study is part of the TRACERx Lung Study created to help researchers understand lung cancer – how it develops and evolves. It is also a good platform for discovering possible new treatments. Professor Swanton considers this a breakthrough in cancer study and the fight against air pollution.

Despite their major discovery, researchers know that more studies need to be undertaken on the link between exposure to toxic air and cancer.

The research

The research team performed several thorough experiments that revealed how dormant mutations can become cancerous once exposed to PM2.5. Particulate matter 2.5 pertains to tiny particles that measure no more than 2 ½ microns in width. Professor Swanton and his team used mice to carry out their experiment. More specifically, they used mice carrying mutations using an EGFR gene. 

Aside from the effects of PM2.5, the team also found out that IL1B or interleukin-1 beta, an inflammatory protein, mediated the risk. IL1B is an immune response when the body is exposed to fine particulate matter. As such, vulnerability to PM2.5 lessened when the drug was given to the mice.

This is one of the breakthroughs that Dr. Swanton hopes to see more of as it can open more possibilities for efficient cancer-preventing medications. 

The study also revealed EGFR mutations in normal lung samples. The team examined samples taken from healthy lung tissues during biopsies. This is proof that everyone has dormant mutations in their cells, and these can develop into cancer, especially if one is regularly exposed to air pollution. 

Professor Swanton stressed the importance of giving attention and value to climate health as it is significantly connected to human health. To protect human health, climate health must first be protected.

Proper information dissemination should be prioritised as well. The death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is proof of this. Her mother, Rosamund, said that had she known how dangerous air pollution is (especially in their area of residence – South Circular Road in south London); she would have known what to do to protect Ella from toxic air. She is now an advocate campaigning for authorities to focus on the pollution-and-health connection. 

Why is the air toxic?

Air pollution is an age-old problem. It has been a global concern for decades. In 2015, the problem worsened after the Dieselgate diesel emissions scandal erupted. In September of that year, US environmental authorities issued a notice of violation to the Volkswagen Group accusing the carmaker of fitting Audi and Volkswagen diesel vehicles with illegal defeat devices. Allegedly, hundreds of thousands of affected vehicles were sold to consumers in the US.

A defeat device or cheat software is used to manipulate emissions during testing so the levels will pass regulatory limits and the vehicle can be sold and driven. The device senses when a vehicle is about to be tested and it automatically caps emissions to levels recommended by the World Health Organization. As emission levels are lowered, the vehicle appears clean and safe for driving. However, this is true only during laboratory conditions. Once the vehicle is driven in a real-world scenario, it emits massive and unlawful levels of nitrogen oxide or NOx. So, in reality, the vehicle is a pollutant.

US authorities ordered VW to recall all the affected vehicles. Fines and fees were also implemented. Over the years, the Volkswagen Group has also entered into settlement agreements with affected drivers and has spent billions in payoffs.

Aside from VW, other German carmakers have also been accused of using defeat devices, specifically Mercedes-Benz and BMW. BMW emissions claim cases were first brought forward in 2018, with the KBA or German Federal Motor Transport Authority urging the carmaker to recall affected vehicles. 

NOx emissions

If the accusations are proven true, then the carmakers have exposed affected drivers – and everyone around them – to dangerous levels of NOx emissions. NOx has adverse effects on the environment and can be life-threatening.

Nitrogen oxide is a group of gases that includes NO or nitric oxide and NO2 or nitrogen dioxide. It produces pollutants such as ground-level ozone, smog, and acid rain. It affects a person’s mental health, causing depression and anxiety. Exposure to NOx emissions can also lead to a decline in cognitive abilities, which can lead to dementia.

Aside from cancer, other life-changing, life-threatening impacts of NOx emissions include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), pulmonary oedema, and respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis. Serious health impacts include laryngospasm, asphyxiation, cardiovascular conditions, and premature death.

Authorities urge affected car owners to file a diesel claim against their carmakers. If the case is successful, carmakers will receive compensation.

Should I start my diesel claim now?

Now is the best time to start your diesel claim. First off, though, you should visit to determine if you are eligible to claim as not all diesel vehicles are affected. Once you’re verified, you can start working with an emissions expert who’ll help bring your emission claim to court.

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