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Air pollution and cancer

Most types of air pollution are a mixture of many harmful substances, including small particles in the air, sulphur oxides, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies types of air pollutants based on their link with cancer. For example, gasoline engine exhaust is classified as a possible carcinogen. Radon, diesel engine exhaust and outdoor air pollution are classified as known carcinogens.

IARC has also classified individual parts of air pollution as known carcinogens. These parts include:

  • particulate matter
  • some volatile organic compounds (such as benzene)
  • certain PAHs (such as benzo[a]purene)

Outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer

We know that smoking is the main cause of lung cancer in Canada. There is now strong evidence that outdoor air pollution also causes lung cancer. The more you’re around air pollution, the higher your risk of lung cancer will be. Researchers have also found that radon gas in indoor air can lead to lung cancer.

Research has also found a link between outdoor air pollution and a higher risk of bladder cancer. More research is needed to study the link between cancer and other parts of air pollution.


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