Air pollution can lead to lung cancer. The connection suggests new ways to stop cancer in its tracks.
Forget taking a deep breath. Around the world, 99 percent of people breathe air polluted to unsafe levels, according to data from the World Health Organization. Activities such as burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases that contribute to air pollution, which could lead to heart disease, stroke, asthma, emphysema, and some types of cancer.
“The burden of disease attributable to air pollution is now estimated to be on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking, and air pollution is now recognized as the single biggest environmental threat to human health,” wrote the authors of a 2021 WHO report.
The majority of lung cancer is attributed to smoking. But as pollution levels have increased, and anti-smoking campaigns have discouraged smoking, the proportion of lung cancers diagnosed in non-smokers has grown. The CDC estimates that 10 to 20 percent of lung cancers in the U.S. currently occur in non-smokers.
The mechanism between air pollution and the development of lung cancer has been unclear, but researchers at London’s Francis Crick Institute recently made an important breakthrough in understanding the connection. Lead investigator Charles Swanton presented this research last month at a conference in Paris.
Pollution awakens mutations
The Crick Institute scientists were able to identify a new link between common air pollutants and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). They focused on pollutants called particulate matter, or PM, that are 2.5 microns wide, narrower than human cells.
Most cancer diagnosed in non-smoking people is NSCLC, but this type of cancer hasn’t received the same research attention as more common lung cancers found in smokers, according to Clare Weeden, a cancer researcher at the Crick Institute and a co-author of the study.
“This is a really underserved and under-researched population that we really need to tackle, as well as lung cancers that occur in smokers,” she says. “Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer worldwide.”
In the past, some researchers believed air pollution caused mutations that led to cancer. Others believed these mutations could remain dormant without any detriment to health until pollutants or other stressors triggered them to become cancerous. Reviving the latter hypothesis that carcinogens may activate pre-existing mutations, instead of directly causing them, the Crick researchers analyzed samples from 463,679 people in the UK and parts of Asia, noting mutations and comparing changes in gene expression in mice and human cells.
“The mutation can exist in a nascent clone without causing cancer,” says Emilia Lim, a bioinformatics expert and a co-first author of the Crick study. “It is the carcinogen that promotes a conducive environment for this one little clone to grow and expand into cancer. Through our work, we were able to revive excitement for this hypothesis and bring it to light.”
The study explains a confusing pattern of lung cancer developing, particularly in women, despite a lack of environmental risk factors like smoking, secondhand smoke, or radon exposure. The culprit in these cases may have been too much PM 2.5 exposure.
Other researchers had previously identified a link between mutations in certain genes that control epidermal growth factor receptors, or EGFR mutations, and the development of NSCLC. In a 2019 study of 250 people with this type of cancer, about 32 percent had the mutation. Women are more likely to have EGFR mutations than men.
Not everyone who has the EGFR mutation will develop lung cancer. Respirologist Stephen Lam studies lung cancer at the BC Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver, Canada, but was not involved in the Crick Institute research. He says the study explains a confusing pattern of lung cancer developing, particularly in women, despite a lack of environmental risk factors like smoking, secondhand smoke, or radon exposure. The culprit in these cases may have been too much PM 2.5 exposure.
More exposure leads to inflammation and lesions
The Crick researchers found that an excess of PM 2.5 in the air sparked an inflammatory process in cells within the lung. This inflammation set the stage for NSCLC to develop in people and mice with existing EGFR mutations.
The researchers also exposed mice without EGFR mutations to PM 2.5 pollution—an experiment that couldn’t be ethically conducted in humans—to link pollution exposure to NSCLC. The mice experiments also showed that NSCLC is dose-dependent; higher levels of exposure were associated with higher number of cancerous lesions forming.
Ultimately, the study “fundamentally changed how we view lung cancer in people who have never smoked,” said Swanton in a Crick Institute press release. “Cells with cancer-causing mutations accumulate naturally as we age, but they are normally inactive. We’ve demonstrated that air pollution wakes these cells up in the lungs, encouraging them to grow and potentially form tumors.”
Preventing cancer before it begins
Targeted therapies already exist for people with EGFR mutations who’ve developed NSCLC, but they have many side effects, according to Weeden. Researchers hope that making more definitive links between pollutants and cancer could help prevent people with EGFR or other mutations from developing lung cancer in the first place.
Along those lines, as an additional component of their study presented last month, the Crick researchers were able to prevent cancer in mice that had the EGFR mutations by blocking inflammation. They used an antibody to inhibit a protein called interleukin 1 beta, which plays a key role in inflammation. Scientists could eventually use such antibodies or other therapies to make a drug treatment that people can take to stop cancer in its tracks, even if they live in highly polluted areas.
Such potential could reach beyond lung cancer; in the past, Crick and other researchers have also found associations between exposure to air pollution and mesothelioma, as well as cancers of the small intestine, lip, mouth, and throat. These links could be meaningful to a growing number of people as climate change intensifies, and with increases in air pollution from fossil fuel combustion and natural disasters like forest fires.
Plus, air pollution is just one external condition that can flip the switch of these inflammatory pathways. Identifying a link between pollution and cancer “has wide ramifications for many other environmental factors that may [play] similar roles,” Weedon says. She hopes that the Crick study and future research in this area will offer some hope for non-smokers frustrated by cancer diagnoses.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
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- New research on the benefits of cold showers
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Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”