Chances of Cancer increased due to air pollution says US research

In a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers identified air pollution as a major contributor to lung and breast cancer.

Using a spatiotemporal model (which includes data collected over space and time), researchers analysed a large USA-wide samples to investigate links between air pollution and breast cancer risk in women.

Researchers observed an 10 percent increase in breast cancer risk for a 10 mg/m3 increase in estimated historic PM 2.5 (particulate matter) concentrations over a 10–15 years period.

PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. PM 2.5 are fine inhalable particles, with a diameter that's 2.5 micrometres and smaller. According to the US- EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), PM 2.5 poses the greatest risk to health.

The study included 1,96,905 female participants without a prior history of cancer in six US states and two metropolitan areas and identified 15,870 breast cancer cases in the follow up period. Researchers estimated annual average PM 2.5 concentrations for a five-year period prior to enrolment of the candidate.

Air and Water Pollution in Indian Subcontinent 

The AQLI (Air Quality Life Index) data reveals that residents in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are expected to lose about 5 years of life span on average, if existing levels of pollution sustains or exceeds. Since 2013, about 59 percent of the increase in world pollution was observed from India alone, according to a study by the University of Chicago published in September 2023.

About 1.4 billion Indian people's live in areas where the annual average particulate Matter levels exceed WHO guidelines. The WHO's recommended 24-hour average guideline for PM2.5 was 5 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). As of 2022, India's national average particulate matter concentration was 53.3 μg/m3 according to World Air Quality Report.

Among all the women's, spread of cancers (including breast cancer) accounted for 51 percent of all cancers, according to an Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) report released in 2022.

More over, Indian oncologists say that the new US study identifying PM as a possible cause of breast cancer is not entirely a surprise for us, as PM is already associated with increased risk of lung and blood cancer.

“Low-dose long-term exposure to PM would result in increased incidence of other cancers like lung, blood and esophagus,” said Dr Ruquaya Ahmad Mir, Senior Consultant - Surgical Oncology - Apollo Cancer Centre.

However, other experts point out the link between physiological and genetic characteristics of Asians and Caucasians and cancer risk. “Racial and ethnic differences between Caucasians and Asians may also contribute to the different risk profile for breast cancer in these populations,” said Dr Uma Dangi, Consultant, Medical Oncology - Fortis Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi.

The frequency of BRCA1/2 genetic mutations range from 2.9 percent to 24 percent among Indian family breast cancer patients according to earlier studies. In the general U.S. population, it is estimated that about 1 in 400 to 1 in 800 individuals carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. This equates to roughly 0.125 percent to 0.25 percent of the population according to the US National Cancer Institute.

The US study recruited adults aged older than 50 years, who are typically menopausal or post-menopausal, precluding analyses of the effect of PM on cancer among pre-menopausal women. This study identified the association between particulate matter pollution and breast cancer for estrogen receptor–positive (ER+) tumours, but not for estrogen receptor–negative (ER-) tumours.

According to Dr Dangi, breast cancer usually occurs in women over 50 in western countries, which could be reason why this age group was chosen for the study. The older the candidate, the longer their exposure to environmental toxins, and thus the risk of developing cancer is higher.

In ER+ breast cancer, cancer cells have receptors that can bind to estrogen, a hormone, promoting cell growth. Hormonal medicines like Tamoxifen prevent cancer cells from using estrogen to grow and spread and lead to a better outlook.

ER- breast cancer lacks these receptors and doesn't respond well to hormonal treatments. It tends to be more aggressive and grows faster, requiring chemotherapy and targeted treatment.

This type of cancer cells are estrogen- and progesterone-negative and also don't make any or much of the HER2 protein (the cells test "negative" on all three tests.) These cancers tend to be more common in women younger than 40, who have a BRCA1 mutation. This type of cancer tends to grow and spread faster, has fewer treatment options, and tends to have a worse prognosis. The BRCA1 gene protects one from breast cancer, and a mutation of this increases one's chances of getting the disease.

Experts added that more studies must be conducted to come to conclusions regarding the Indian population cancer cases.

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