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William J. Gradishar, MD, FACP, FASCO


Is Air Pollution Linked to Risk of Breast Cancer?

By: Chris Schimpf, BS
Posted: Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that air pollution was associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer. Specifically, Alexandra J. White, PhD, of the Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and colleagues observed a link between fine particulate matter and a higher incidence of estrogen receptor (ER)-positive tumors—but not ER-negative tumors. The researchers recommended future study exploring how regional differences in concentrations and chemical makeup of fine particulate air pollution may impact breast cancer risk.

“We observed an 8% increase in breast cancer incidence for [people] living in areas with higher [fine particulate] exposure,” said Dr. White in an NIEHS press release. “Although this is a relatively modest increase, these findings are significant given that air pollution is a ubiquitous exposure that impacts almost everyone.”

The investigators conducted the large, prospective cohort study using data from the NIH–American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Diet and Health Study, which enrolled more than 500,000 individuals between 1995 and 1996 in six states (California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Louisiana) and two metropolitan areas (Atlanta and Detroit). The women in the cohort—who had an average age of 62 and most of whom identified as non-Hispanic White—were followed for approximately 20 years, during which 15,870 breast cancer cases were identified. The average historic fine particulate concentrations for each participant’s residence were examined, beginning 10 to 15 years prior to enrollment in the study.

“The ability to consider historic air pollution levels is an important strength of this research,” said study coauthor Rena Jones, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute. “It can take many years for breast cancer to develop, and, in the past, air pollution levels tended to be higher, which may make previous exposure levels particularly relevant for cancer development.”

Disclosure: The study authors reported no conflicts of interest.

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