Air pollution levels across major cities in India have been deteriorating as the winter season approaches and post-Diwali, the condition worsened especially in Delhi-NCR. Air pollution can lead to many health complications, affecting lung health as well as leading to cardiovascular diseases. But according to experts, prolonged exposure can also make one more vulnerable to diseases like cancer. Dr Akshat Malik, Head & Neck Cancer Surgeon, Max Super Specialty Hospital, Saket, New Delhi, shares, “Air pollution can contribute to the development of cancer through various mechanisms, primarily by introducing or promoting harmful substances in the body.”
How Air Pollution Increases Risk Of Cancer
Dr Akshat Malik shares some of the ways in which air pollution can lead to cancer:
Introduction of Carcinogens: Air pollution contains a mixture of chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens (substances that can cause cancer). For example, particulate matter (especially fine particles like PM2.5) can carry carcinogenic compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), into the respiratory system when inhaled. These chemicals can then come into contact with lung tissue, potentially leading to DNA damage and mutations that may initiate cancerous growth.
Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: Exposure to certain components of air pollution, like PM2.5 and ozone (O3), can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress can disrupt cellular processes and DNA repair mechanisms, increasing the risk of genetic mutations and the development of cancer.
DNA Damage: Some chemicals in air pollution can directly interact with DNA, causing damage. This damage may interfere with the normal functioning of cells and increase the likelihood of uncontrolled cell growth, a hallmark of cancer.
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Promotion Of Tumour Growth: Air pollution can create an environment in the body that is conducive to the growth of tumours. For example, certain pollutants can stimulate the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) around tumours, providing them with a steady supply of nutrients and oxygen.
Weakening Of Immune Response: Prolonged exposure to air pollution can weaken the immune system’s ability to recognise and eliminate abnormal or cancerous cells. This can allow cancer cells to evade immune surveillance and proliferate.
Alteration Of Hormonal Balance: Some components of air pollution, such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, can interfere with the body’s hormonal balance. This disruption can potentially lead to hormonal changes that promote the development of hormone-related cancers, like breast and prostate cancer.
Synergistic Effects With Other Risk Factors: Air pollution can interact with other risk factors, such as tobacco smoke or occupational exposures, to increase the overall risk of cancer. For example, exposure to both tobacco smoke and air pollution can have a synergistic effect on lung cancer risk.
“It’s important to note that the specific mechanisms and the extent of their contribution to cancer risk may vary depending on the type and concentration of pollutants, individual susceptibility, and other environmental and genetic factors. Reducing exposure to air pollution and adopting measures to improve air quality are crucial steps in reducing the associated cancer risks. Additionally, early detection and intervention remain important in managing and treating cancer,” says Dr Akshat Malik.