Landmark Study: People in Highly Polluted Areas at Greater Risk of Cancer

Americans who live in highly polluted areas are likely at greater risk of developing cancers, especially breast and prostate cancers, according to a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study, published online today in Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society, is believed to be the first to compare cancer rates in counties across the nation to the overall environmental quality in those locations. Environmental quality was measured by an Environmental Protection Agency index that combines multiple environmental conditions, including air and water quality.

For the study period of 2006 to 2010, counties with poor environmental quality recorded higher incidences of cancer cases. The average rate of cancer for all counties was 451 cases per 100,000 people, but counties with poor environmental quality had on average 39 more cases of cancer per 100,000 people.

"Our study is the first we are aware of to address the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on cancer incidence," said Jyotsna S. Jagai, primary investigator and lead author of the study, who previously helped develop the EPA’s environmental quality index. "For example, lung cancer is associated with several environmental exposures, including certain pesticides and diesel exhaust. However, we do not experience exposures in a vacuum but rather are exposed to several exposures at any one time."

EWG President Ken Cook said the study lends more weight to cutting-edge research suggesting that cancer may develop because of cumulative and combined exposure to multiple carcinogens. It also raises alarms about the Trump administration's plans to roll back pollution controls.

“This study suggests that where you live could increase your risk of cancer,” said Cook. "The Trump administration's agenda of gutting air and water protections would harm all Americans, but would have the worst impact on places where there's already more pollution. Instead, we need to improve environmental quality for all Americans, while working to eliminate regional and local disparities in pollution." 

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