Does Poor Air Quality Actually Cause Cancer?

A new, first-of-its-kind study examining environmental quality across the U.S. offers yet another stark warning about the severe health impacts of pollutants.

Of course, plenty of studies have linked air pollution to various individual health risks — from poorer prenatal health to neurological phenomena, like increased incidents of more extreme autistic behaviors. However, no research to date has explored whether environmental factors as a whole may contribute to elevated cancer risk.

While genetics play a part in our underlying cancer risk, it’s likely not the entire picture. Because environmental exposures in day-to-day life may increase our risks, it’s crucial to pin down how air quality and other factors impact our health.

And that’s precisely what University of Illinois researchers aimed to investigate. To do so, they examined environmental quality across a variety of domains — including air quality, water quality and land composition — as well as social factors, like an area’s overall development.

The research team compared data from the Environmental Quality Index, which uses standard measures to gauge environmental quality, to cancer incidence rates from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program State Cancer Profiles, a National Cancer Institute program that provides statistics on the cancer burden of the U.S. population.

Researchers published their findings in the journal “Cancer,” and the results showed some significant differences. Namely, poor air quality and a built environment — for instance, living near a major highway — were the factors most likely to raise cancer rates.

The average — age-adjusted — rate for all cancers came out at 451 cases per 100,000 people. However, people living in areas with poorer environmental quality were far more likely to suffer, with around 39 extra cases per 100,000 people than in areas of high environmental quality. The increased cancer rates were suffered by both men and women, with prostate and breast cancers showing a strong association.

While this is just an association and not a firm link, the research appears to corroborate other health findings. For example, research has shown that environmental factors, like proximity to major highways, can actually offer a map of dementia risk.

Poverty and its associated risks — like poor quality housing in areas beset by air quality problems — also tends to overlap with higher cancer incidences. So, while this research alone does not prove that environmental stresses directly increase cancer rates in the poor, it suggests that air quality is an important factor that must be monitored.

In particular, this research demonstrated that urban areas, with poor air quality and substantial infrastructure, tended to produce the most pronounced cancer rates — and, inevitably, this is where our poorest live.

“Our study is the first we are aware of to address the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on cancer incidence,” Dr. Jyotsna S. Jagai explained. “This work helps support the idea that all of the exposures we experience affect our health, and underscores the potential for social and environmental improvements to positively impact health outcomes.”

The researchers say they would like to investigate some areas further. Given that some counties are very large, the data they provide spans both developed regions and countryside — and that could potentially skew the study’s results.

Nevertheless, the researchers emphasize that their study provides valuable insight for tailoring health initiatives to better serve at-risk communities.

In an accompanying editorial, the researchers also note that the data they used was obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency’s initiatives. Considering that the EPA is vital to environmental and health assessments, Republican attempts to dismantle the agency must be resisted — not just as a matter of good policy, but also to protect our own health.

Photo Credit: Global Panorama/Flickr


Telica R
Telica R2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

william M
william Miller8 months ago


Ruth S
Ruth S8 months ago


Sheila S
Sheila S8 months ago

All the more reason to implement strong air quality safe guards, as well as increase health care services in lower income communities! Current administration is sure missing the mark on both counts!!

Peggy B
Peggy B8 months ago

SPAM flagged.

Peggy B
Peggy B8 months ago


Marija M
Marija Mohoric8 months ago

Of course it does.

Debbi -
Debbi -8 months ago

I think DNA is only one small part, depending on family history of cancer. There will always be the 'first' in the family to be diagnosed with cancer. I believe like everything else, it's a combination of factor. If living in an area with poor air quality for a few decades caused cancer then everyone who lived in the Los Angeles basin for decades would be dead now. The good news is that finally there are new treatments that are very promising, many available now. Immunotherapy is one but isn't available for every cancer, yet. I believe there are other cures available but they don't except medicare, only the best insurance or a lot of money.

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Anne M
Anne Moran8 months ago

No-brainer,, yes....