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Air Pollution Causes Cancer, World Health Organization Says

Health + Wellness

It has been known for a while that air pollution contributes to heart disease and respiratory ailments. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) added cancer to the list of health risks caused by air pollution.

There's sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer, WHO said in a press release. Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and also was classified as carcinogenic to humans. Outdoor dust also can contribute to cancer. The world's leading experts also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer, WHO said. 

Coal fired power plant in Romania. Photo credit: Creative Commons, CEE Bankwatch Network, 2013

In 2010, lung cancer resulting from air pollution killed 223,000 people worldwide. As pollution levels climb, so will the rate of cancer, WHO said.

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” WHO spokesman Dr. Kurt Straif said in the release. “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO's cancer research wing, called air pollution the worst and most widespread environmental carcinogen.

"The predominant sources of outdoor air pollution are transportation, stationary power generation, industrial and agricultural emissions, and residential heating and cooking," the IARC said.

The problem of air pollution is worldwide, but people in developing countries with large populations and booming manufacturing sectors with few pollution controls are particularly at risk, the IARC said.

The agency decided upon the official classification of outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic after reviewing the latest scientific writings and coming to the conclusion that the evidence was ample.

The classification is an important step,  IARC Director Dr. Christopher Wild said.

"There are effective ways to reduce air pollution and, given the scale of the exposure affecting people worldwide, this report should send a strong signal to the international community to take action without further delay."

 

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.