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22nd September 2020

Air pollution is Still Here this World Car Free Day

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Here at Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation we campaign tirelessly to help share better understanding of the disease and its many and complex causes. Sadly, even today, far too many people assume that the only cause of lung cancer is smoking, which can lead to all sorts of false assumptions and prejudice.

As many people who’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer can testify, it’s tough enough to deal with the situation without having to face questions about lifestyle choices you may or may not have made in the past.

The plain truth is that up to 28% of cases of lung cancer are associated with other causes; among them is air pollution. 

Fine-particle air pollution is particularly bad for us. An estimated 7.8% of lung cancers each year in the UK are thought to be caused by PM2.5 air pollution exposure. It is these microscopic particles of sooty carbon that can cause lung cancer.

Measuring approximately 1/30th of the width of a human hair, they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing a range of diseases including stroke, heart disease, respiratory infections – and lung cancer.

Fumes given off by diesel engines are a significant factor in the increase in air pollution over the past 20 years. Many motorists switched from petrol when cars with diesel engines became more efficient, less noisy – and cheaper. As the price of petrol rose sharply throughout the early part of the 21st century, fuel economy became a major issue with the family budget. Government policies at the time pointed people towards efficient diesel cars, as the full extent of the complex factors within air pollution had not yet become clear.

A 2018 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that people in more than 40 UK towns and cities were exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

Now we know just how harmful those tiny pieces of soot can be, many of us have switched back to petrol, to electric vehicles, or to choosing to make fewer journeys by car or bus and to walk or cycle instead.

Scientists studying air quality in China observed that, during the coronavirus lockdown, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) did show improvements, but levels of PM2.5 showed only a modest reduction of 11% in some areas and did not decline at all in the north east of the country. In other words, it takes a long time for levels of PM2.5 to reduce.

Other research has shown that air pollution can also include microscopic particles from road surface material, kicked up as they disintegrate over time, and also particles from rubber tyres. 

Today, 22 September, is World Car Free Day. It gives us all an opportunity to try to find ways of getting from A to B without relying on the ‘infernal combustion engine’, as author Terry Pratchett called it! It also gives us an opportunity to think about how every one of our journeys by car, bus or train can impact the wider environment – and the people living within it.

People like Andy McKay.

Andy was diagnosed in August 2017 with both lung cancer and a brain tumour.  Within weeks, he had started targeted therapy, which shrank his tumours by around 70%. His condition stabilised, and then he was able to receive targeted radiotherapy. This also helped, and earlier this year, Andy had surgery to remove one of the lobes of his left lung.

He’s delighted to report:

‘’I’ve now had the first scan in two years to show no active cancer in me, no evidence of disease. I wouldn’t say life is fully back to normal. I’ve made some lifestyle changes. I’ve given up alcohol which I shed a tear over at the time. I eat a bit healthier as well which is good.

‘’I’m back out cycling. I cycled 20 miles at the weekend in one go which was my target for the month. Next month, my target is 30 miles in one go.’’

‘’The positive I think is that it’s made me really look to maximise the use of my time. Time I’d much more valuable than it felt before’’.

Time is so valuable, and so is the quality of our air. Maybe we could all take a moment to consider how we can help make a change to our lifestyles so that people like Andy can have more time, and that fewer people will be at risk of getting lung cancer at all.

Air pollution is STILL HERE. Lung cancer is STILL HERE. So we are STILL HERE.