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Large new study links air pollution levels to breast cancer risk

The study was one of the largest to ever investigate the effects of tiny particles of air pollution from industrial emissions and car exhaust.
Large new study links air pollution levels to breast cancer risk
Posted at 4:40 PM, Sep 11, 2023

New research from the National Institutes of Health shows living in areas with relatively higher levels of particulate air pollution can lead to higher rates of breast cancer.

Scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute drew on information from more than 500,000 men and women in six states (California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) and in two metro areas (Atlanta and Detroit), making this study one of the largest such investigations into cancer risks ever. Over the course of approximately 20 years, researchers identified 15,870 cases of breast cancer.

The study measured historical concentrations of PM2.5, which is pollution from sources like industrial emissions and car exhaust whose particles have diameters of 2.5 microns or smaller. Particles of that size can be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they can aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases, and cause irregular heartbeat and even nonfatal heart attacks.

The new study shows that higher PM2.5 concentrations are also associated with a higher risk for certain breast cancer tumors. The researchers believe PM2.5 may cause endocrine disruption that can lead to cancers.

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"We observed an 8% increase in breast cancer incidence for living in areas with higher PM2.5 exposure. Although this is a relatively modest increase, these findings are significant given that air pollution is a ubiquitous exposure that impacts almost everyone," said Alexandra White, Ph.D., lead author and head of the Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Group at NIEHS. "These findings add to a growing body of literature suggesting that air pollution is related to breast cancer."

Experts suggest future work should dig deeper into whether any regional differences in PM2.5 levels affect the risk of cancer.

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