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New Study Shows How Lung Cancer and Pollution Are Linked

At the ESMO Conference three years ago, Professor Charles Swanton introduced delegates to their Cancer Research UK-funded study linking air pollution to lung cancer in people who did not smoke and have never smoked. The long-term study was conducted with the help of the Francis Crick Institute and the University College London (UCL).  

As per the study’s findings, exposure to air pollution can lead to cancer-causing mutations developing in a person’s lungs. Fine particles emitted by diesel vehicles wake up the lung cells’ dormant mutations. When exposed to particulate matter or PM2.5, the dormant mutations become cancerous. 

Researchers explain that the DNA in our cells accumulates damage as we age. When something triggers it, that’s when it becomes cancerous.  

This explains why even non-smokers can develop cancer. 

How the study was conducted  

The research team analysed EGFR or epidermal growth factor mutant lung cancer. Lung cancer in non-smokers normally exhibits EGFR gene mutations.

The team gathered data from UK and Asian respondents and then took the EGFR mutant lung cancer rates in several areas and compared these with various levels of particulate matter (PM2.5). Those who lived in places with excess levels of PM2.5 had higher EGFR mutant lung cancer rates and higher vulnerability to other cancer types.

Study co-author Dr. Emilia Lim said that PM2.5 pollution levels exceed the World Health Organization’s annual limits globally. This is a reflection of how colossal the problem of air pollution is nowadays. Dr. Lim says this is important because the tiniest changes in toxic air levels can significantly impact a person’s health. 

The research team also experimented on mice that they exposed to city-level air pollution. They used mice that had cells with EGFR mutations and compared these with mice that were kept safe from toxic air. The cells with EGFR mutations developed more cancers.

Additionally, researchers discovered that when IL-1β, a molecule released to respond to PM2.5 pollution and is responsible for causing inflammation, can stop cancer from developing in mice.

The most valuable takeaway from the research is the fact that many now know that air pollution can wake up dormant cancer cells. It will now be easier to determine which programs and policies can reduce the risks of lung cancer for non-smokers.  

Smoking is still one of the major causes of lung cancer. In the UK, seven out of 10 cases of lung cancer are linked to smoking. However, outdoor toxic air is also responsible for one in ten UK cases, including around 6,000 non-smokers who succumbed to lung cancer annually. In 2019, global deaths attributed to lung cancer were estimated at 300,000. These deaths were caused by exposure to PM2.5. 

The role of emissions

Emissions, particularly road transport emissions, are contributors to air pollution. Diesel vehicles emit nitrogen oxide (NOx), which contains NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and NO (nitric oxide). NOx is highly reactive, so when it mixes with other chemicals, it produces pollutants, such as acid rain, smog, and ground-level ozone.

NOx emissions attack silently. In some, this can start with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In others, asthma is the first sign. A decline in cognitive health is also quite common and often leads to dementia. 

The more serious health impacts are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), laryngospasm and asphyxiation, and as already mentioned, cancer. Over the years, reports have also consistently identified cardiovascular disease as one of the most common effects of exposure to air pollution. Most of these cases escalate to premature death. 

NOx emissions’ devastating effects played a prominent role in the early death of young south London resident Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. Ella was only nine when she died after a severe asthma attack. However, since the circumstances of her death were questionable – she lived in an area where the air pollution levels are extremely high, an inquest was ordered. 

In December 2020, the coroner confirmed what the public suspected: Ella died because of exposure to high levels of air pollution.

NOx emissions have been in the spotlight since 2015 when the Dieselgate diesel emissions scandal first broke. US authorities allegedly found defeat devices in Audi and VW vehicles. These devices are used to artificially reduce emissions during regulatory testing.

Once the test starts, the device lowers emissions to within the legal levels so the vehicle appears clean and safe. However, when taken for a drive on real-world roads, the vehicle emits excessive amounts of NOx, proving that it is a pollutant. VW lied to their customers so they could profit.

Many other carmakers are implicated in the scandal, including British manufacturer Vauxhall. Although the Vauxhall emissions scandal is fairly new, it has already affected hundreds of thousands of drivers in the UK. This is why drivers are encouraged to file a diesel claim against their carmakers.

Do I need my diesel claim?

If your vehicle has been fitted with a defeat device, its performance may have been affected. You deserve to be compensated for this, and for the dangers of being exposed to NOx emissions. However, before you can file a diesel claim, you have to verify your eligibility to receive compensation first by visiting

Once done, find an emissions expert who can help you decide if joining a GLO (Group Litigation Order) is the best way to ensure the success of your Vauxhall emission claim.

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