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Further work is needed to quantity the effect of outdoor air pollution on lung cancer
Lung cancer accounts for 1.2 million deaths yearly worldwide, exceeding mortality from any other cancer in the developed countries.1 The vast majority are caused by tobacco smoking, but environmental causes of cancer, including air pollution, have long been a concern also.2 Outdoor air pollution has received particular attention lately as research has proliferated linking exposure, even at low ambient levels, to a wide range of adverse health effects including increased mortality and morbidity from non-malignant cardiovascular and respiratory disease and lung cancer. In response, international agencies such as the World Health Organization and governments in Europe, the US and Canada have reviewed existing air quality standards and, in many cases, moved to strengthen them. In the developed countries, where air quality has generally improved in recent decades, the scientific basis and public health efficacy of these actions have been questioned by industries whose emissions are regulated and others. In this context, reports linking air pollution and lung cancer are likely to attract attention and generate controversy. The publication of the paper by Nafstad and colleagues in this issue of Thorax is an occasion to consider both the contribution of this study to the evidence linking air pollution and lung cancer and what additional research may be needed.3
Exposure to outdoor air pollution has been associated with small relative increases in lung cancer in studies conducted over the past four decades.4 The epidemic of lung cancer emerging in the 1950s in the US and Europe motivated early research on the role of air pollution, including studies of migrants and urban-rural comparisons but, as the role of cigarette smoking became increasingly clear, interest in air pollution waned. However, recent prospective cohort and case-control …