Belgium, (Brussels Morning) Exposure to air pollution is responsible for over 10% of all cancer cases in Europe, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published today. In particular, second-hand smoke, radon, ultraviolet radiation, asbestos, certain chemicals and other pollutants are the major culprits identified by EEA.
Despite the cry for change, EEA acknowledges that decades of action on air pollution have significantly improved air quality across Europe, leading to a reduction in premature deaths.
However, around 300,000 people per year continue to lose their lives prematurely in the EU due to exposure to a single air pollutant — fine particulate matter (PM).
PM, isn’t just one contaminant, it’s a range of particles of dust, dirt, and liquids that become suspended in the air. Some of these are large enough to see, like smoke, smog, or soot, but the most harmful are smaller, invisible particles.
“Cutting pollution through the EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan and the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability as well as strong implementation of other existing EU policies would go a long way to reduce cancer cases and deaths. This would be an effective investment in our citizen’s well-being,” said EEA’s Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.
The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) maintains a pragmatic approach, defending that only through regulatory intervention and policy implementation will be possible to drastically reduce air pollution across European cities.
“The full and legally binding alignment of EU’s air quality standards with the 2021 WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines by 2030 at the latest will require the public authorities to improve air quality,” Matteo Barisione, EPHA’s Junior Policy Manager told Brussels Morning.
“We should also promote active modes of transport such as walking, cycling, and public transport. Medical studies show that there is a link between higher levels of physical activity and lower risk of cancer,” added Barisione.
EPHA is supporting a new campaign called Medics for Clean Air to help healthcare professionals to speak out about the public health emergency caused by road transport pollution in Europe.
Cancer and the environment
For the first time, the EEA investigated the links between cancer and the environment, reviewing the latest scientific evidence on air pollution, radon, ultraviolet radiation, second-hand smoke and chemicals.
According to the study, cancer impacts the lives of many Europeans, with nearly 2.7 million new patients diagnosed and 1.3 million deaths each year in the EU-27.
Although Europe represents less than 10% of the world’s population, it reports almost 23% of new cancer cases and 20% of the cancer deaths worldwide.
The high prevalence of cancer in Europe, however, can be explained by a variety of causes and factors, including lifestyle — notably smoking, alcohol consumption and diet — ageing and chronic exposure to some pharmaceuticals, pollutants and other occupational and environmental carcinogens.
Still, the EEA study found that a significant proportion of cancers in Europe are attributable to preventable environmental and occupational risks.
“Prevention will always be better than cure, and as part of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, we have made a strong commitment to reduce contaminants in water, soil and air,” said the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides commenting on the EEA study.
This week, the Commission delivered a proposal under the Farm to Fork Strategy, under the European Green Deal, to reduce the use of pesticides with 50% by 2030. The EEA study further argued the need to identify better data on Europe-wide exposure to environmental and occupational cancer risks and more evidence on the risk arising from low levels of exposure to multiple carcinogens.
“The EU Environment Agency’s report drives home once again how every day counts when it comes to reducing harmful cancer-causing pollutants, like air pollution, endocrine disruptors and pesticides,” said Genon Jensen, Founder and Executive Director of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).
Despite the uncertainties, EEA stated, what is already known about the links between environment and cancer clearly supports implementing ambitious ‘zero pollution’ policies as tools for cancer prevention.
“Urgent and ambitious implementation of the EU Green Deal is crucial to tackle environmental cancer risks, which are largely preventable,” added Jensen.