Outdoor air pollution causes cancer: UN

The downside of rapidly developing urban areas? Cancer-causing air pollution.

For the past two weeks I've been on vacation in Ethiopia. Much of the time was spent in the capital city, Addis Ababa. It's a city that's seeing impressive growth with construction happening just about everywhere you turn. In the city center, the construction of an expansive light rail is almost halfway completed. On the outskirts, new neighborhoods are rising where fields existed just a few years earlier. But in the midst of all this beneficial construction there's something else you can't ignore: the air pollution, from the bulldozers to minibuses pumping out black plumes. And it's cities, like Addis, in rapidly industrializing countries that will pay the price for not dealing with air pollution in the form of public health.

That's because now we know that the outdoor air pollution that plagues urban areas from Ethiopia to China is causing lung cancer. The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has officially labeled outdoor air pollution as a leading cause of cancer [PDF] after reviewing 1,000 scientific papers on the subject from five continents.

"The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances," said Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Section. "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."

Previously, the IARC labeled individual elements found in outdoor air pollution, like diesel engine exhaust, as carcinogens, but this is the first time that the organization has labeled outdoor air pollution, as a whole, as a cause of cancer. About 223,000 people die from lung cancer as a result of air pollution each year, IARC says.

And for cities that are looking to fix their air pollution problem, the solutions aren't cheap. China, which has its share of air pollution problems , says it will need to spend $817 billion to clean up its air. Beijing alone will need $163 billion. Those are difficult figures to swallow for any country, let alone countries that aren't major world economies.

Photo: Flickr/Asian Development Bank

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