How can air pollution cause cancer?

  • Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of lung cancer.
  • On average, air pollution levels in the UK are low, so the increased risk of cancer for each person is usually small.
  • Many more lung cancer cases are caused by smoking than air pollution. 

Air pollution can mean outdoor or indoor air pollution. Both can increase the risk of cancer as well as respiratory and heart disease.

What is outdoor air pollution?

Outdoor air pollution is a mixture of tiny dust-like particles and substances in the air. It can be man-made, such as fumes from vehicles or factories and smoke from burning fuels like wood or coal. But it also includes natural sources, such as wind-blown dust. Studies usually look at the smallest particles, called ‘particulate matter’. 


What is the cancer risk from outdoor air pollution?

Outdoor air pollution causes roughly 1 in 10 cases of lung cancer. But, it’s important to keep this in perspective. Smoking has a much bigger effect on the risk of developing lung cancer than air pollution.

There are a few different ways that particles in air pollution could damage DNA in cells and cause lung cancer. For example, tiny particles may build up in the lungs and change how cells replicate. This could lead to DNA damage which can cause cancer.


How big is the risk of outdoor air pollution in the UK?

The UK has quite low levels of outdoor air pollution compared to other countries. And levels of most pollutants including particulate matter are within the recommended limits. But levels can peak and drop depending on the time of year and the weather.

Air pollution levels tend to be higher in UK towns and cities, especially in the South and the East of England.



What can I do to reduce my cancer risk?

It’s difficult for anyone to avoid air pollution completely, and you don’t need to avoid going outside. There are lots of other things you can do to reduce your cancer risk including not smoking, keeping a healthy weight and staying safe in sun.


How can we reduce air pollution levels?

Everyone has a right to be healthy. Cancer Research UK supports national and local strategies to reduce outdoor air pollution. We are also a member of the Healthy Air Campaign

We can all play our part to help to reduce air pollution levels by trying to avoid creating more of it. Walking or cycling rather than driving can help reduce pollution levels and it’s a great way to be more active.


What is indoor air pollution?

Indoor air pollution can have many sources. A key source of indoor air pollution in the UK is second-hand smoke from cigarettes. But burning of wood and coal to heat homes and cook with can also add to indoor air pollution. 

Passive smoking is breathing in second-hand smoke from cigarettes. It can cause lung cancer and other health problems like heart disease.

Most exposure to second-hand smoke happens in the home and is particularly dangerous for children. Read more about passive smoking

If you smoke, smoking outsidewell away from the home can help reduce exposure for others. And stopping smoking reduces the risk for both you and your loved ones. Find out how to stop smoking


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International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Air pollution and Cancer. Vol 161 (2012)

Brown, K. F. et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to known risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the UK overall in 2015. Br. J. Cancer. 118, 1130-1141 (2018)

Hamra GB, Guha N, Cohen A, et al. Outdoor particulate matter exposure and lung cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental health perspectives. 122, 906-911 (2014)