Beijing, China’s capital, is seeing a huge increase in lung cancer cases. Although Chinese officials attribute the high number of cases to smoking, air pollution has been identified as another major cause of lung cancer in the country.
According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the number of lung cancer cases per 100,000 people in Beijing was 39.56 in 2002, but has soared to 63.09 by 2011.
The levels of air pollution in China have been receiving a lot of press lately. Last week, Xinhua News Agency identified China’s youngest lung cancer patient: an 8-year-old girl. Doctors from the Jiangsu Cancer Hospital said that the smog in the Jiangsu province was most likely the cause of the girl’s cancer. The government also recently shut down roads, schools, and the airport in the city of Harbin, as the air pollution level hit 40 times higher than the safe limit set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to the World Health Organization, there are some 3.2 million deaths per year around the globe due to air pollution, 200,000 of them from lung cancer. “More than half of the lung cancer deaths attributable to ambient fine particles were projected to have been in China and other East Asian countries,” the WHO notes.
“There are lots of carcinogens emitted with industrial pollution,” C. Arden Pope, an economics professor at Brigham Young University who researches air pollution, told National Geographic. “Our respiratory systems filter out the relatively large particles from air pollution… The tiny ones come nearly entirely from burning things — coal, gasoline, and diesel. Those tiny combustion particles are small enough to penetrate the lungs, and they’re made up of all sorts of nasty particles.”
Even in 2008, Chinese officials were sounding alarms about lung cancer, noting that it had surpassed liver cancer as the number one killer of people with malignant tumors living in China. Other cancers, such as intestinal, breast, and bladder cancer, have also had rising rates in the past few decades, Chinese official Qi Xiaoqiu said in the 2008 report. The report also noted that the death rate from malignant tumors was higher in China’s urban areas than it was in rural areas.
“There’s no doubt that the industrial activity in China that is contributing to their economic well-being also contributes to poor health effects,” Pope continued. “The benefits [of industrialization] versus loss of health and productivity are trade-offs not fully understood. But we know from our experience in the U.S. that we get quite substantial benefits when we are able to reduce air pollution.”