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Exposure to pollution causes 10% of all cancer cases in Europe

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News Published 28 Jun 2022 Last modified 05 Jul 2022
5 min read
Photo: © © Victor Troyanov, Environment & Me/EEA
Exposure to air pollution, second-hand smoke, radon, ultraviolet radiation, asbestos, certain chemicals and other pollutants causes over 10% of all cancer cases in Europe, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published today. The good news is that these risks are preventable.

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.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director

Pollutants in the environment and at the workplace, as well as some natural risks, have a huge impact on our health, and in some cases lead to cancer, according to the EEA web report 'Beating cancer — the role of Europe’s environment'. With nearly 3 million new patients and 1.3 million deaths each year across the European Union, cancer takes a huge toll on our society. The economic costs are also enormous, estimated at around EUR 178 billion in 2018 alone.

Most of these environmental and occupational cancer risks can be reduced by preventing pollution and changing behaviours, according to the EEA study. Reducing exposure to these risks offers an effective and cost-effective way of reducing cancer cases and associated deaths.

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. The report estimates that environmental and occupational risks lie behind around 10% of cancer cases in Europe.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, said“The EEA report highlights that too many cancer cases have an underlying environmental cause. The good news is that we can act now to cut pollution and prevent deaths. With the Zero Pollution ambition of the European Green Deal we can deliver cost-effective cancer prevention benefits by reducing exposure to harmful pollutants. What is better for the environment is also better for us.”

Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “Every year in Europe, an estimated over a quarter of a million lives are lost to environmental related cancer. 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. Only this week we delivered a landmark proposal under our Farm to Fork Strategy to reduce the use of pesticides with 50% by 2030. The findings of the European Environment Agency show very clearly how the health of our planet and the health of our citizens are closely interlinked. We need to work with nature, not against it.”

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “We see the impact pollution in our environment has on the health and quality of life of European citizens and that is why preventing pollution is so crucial to our well-being. 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 citizens' well-being.

Environmental risks

Air pollution (both indoor and outdoor) is linked to around 1% of all cancer cases in Europe, and causes around 2% of all cancer deaths. For lung cancers alone, this rises to 9% of deaths. Recent studies have detected associations between long term exposure to particulate matter, a key air pollutant, and leukaemia in adults and children.

Radon and ultraviolet radiation also contribute significantly to the burden of cancer in Europe. Indoor exposure to radon is linked to up to 2% of all cancer cases and one in ten lung cancer cases in Europe. Natural ultraviolet radiation may be responsible for up to 4% of all cancer cases in Europe. In particular, the incidence of melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, has been increased across Europe over the last few decades.

Exposure to second-hand smoke may increase the overall risk for all cancers by up to 16% in people who have themselves never been smokers. Around 31% of Europeans are exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke at home, at work, during leisure, in educational institutions or in public settings.

Certain chemicals used in European workplaces and released into the environment are carcinogenic and contribute to causing cancer. Moreover, several of these chemicals are known or suspected to induce cancer in multiple organs, including lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, acrylamide, pesticides, Bisphenol A and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).

All forms of asbestos are well-known carcinogens, associated with mesothelioma and lung cancers, as well as laryngeal and ovarian cancers. While the EU banned asbestos in 2005, it remains present in buildings and infrastructure leading to the exposure of workers involved in renovation and demolition work. In addition, cancers continue to manifest many years after exposure, with asbestos estimated to account for 55-88% of occupational lung cancers.

EU action on cancer and pollution

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan recognises the role of environmental and occupational risks in driving cancer and the potential to save lives through effective prevention strategies. In line with this objective, the Zero Pollution Action Plan targets reductions in air and water pollution, aiming to reduce human exposure to environmental pollution and reduce health impacts, including the environmental and occupational burden of cancer.

The EU has already taken tough measures on air pollution, under the National Emissions reduction Commitments (NEC) Directive and the Ambient Air Quality Directives, which sets air quality standards for Europe. The European Commission has initiated a revision of the ambient air quality directives, aiming, among other things, to align the air quality standards more closely with the latest air quality guidelines from the World Health Organization. 

The Chemical Strategy for Sustainability aims to ban the most harmful chemicals in products, including those that cause cancer, and to foster the use of chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design.

On radon, the Basic Safety Standards Directive has introduced legally binding requirements on the protection from exposure to natural radiation sources. It mandates EU Member States to establish national radon action plans. Other EU actions include coordinating European efforts to tackle second-hand smoking and raising awareness of the dangers of ultraviolet radiation.

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