A recent study is providing compelling new evidence of a link between lung cancer and the air pollution often found in urban areas.
Dr. Maria Quejada, medical oncologist at the Edward Cancer Center in Naperville, isn’t necessarily urging patients to pack up and move to the country, but she sees the results of the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects as a precautionary word to the wise.
Research connecting polluted air and lung cancer risk has been done before, Quejada noted, but the ESCAPE project had an unprecedented range and longevity.
“Previous studies were kind of equivocal,” she said, noting that the new one involved some 900,000 people in nine countries over a span of 13 years. “It makes it a pretty formidable study in terms of that.”
Researchers focused on the health risk of long-term exposure to pollution. Led by the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, the study gauged local air quality levels against the number of reported lung cancer cases. An analysis of 17 cohorts in the nine European countries found 2,095 people developed lung cancer over the 13 years.
While lung cancer incidence increases slightly in areas where air pollution is prevalent — the earliest studies observed higher rates in countries such as South Korea and Mexico, where charcoal is used for cooking indoors — experts point out that smoking remains the primary cause. It’s also avoidable, though.
“Unfortunately, we’re all exposed to air pollution, urban areas more than rural areas,” Quejada said. “The problem is its impact.”
Although amendments tacked onto the federal Clean Air Act more than two decades ago have reduced the pollutants being churned into the atmosphere, the impact of automobile exhaust, manufacturing emissions, soot, lawn mowers, aerosol sprays and energy production continues to take a toll.
Air quality can vary widely from county to county, according to the American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air report. The annual publication gives counties a letter grade based on the amount of particle pollution in the air and the number of high-ozone days they have.
When it comes to progress toward better air overall, the local assessments were mixed.
DuPage County received an A in particle pollution, improving on last year’s B, which had been a step up from the C given in 2011. On the high-ozone gauge, DuPage slipped back to a B after improving to an A a year ago, according to the report.
Will County, which scored an A for high-ozone days and a B for particle pollution last year, was given a B grade on both measures this time.
Adjacent Cook County received an F in both.
On a municipal level, Naperville has been working toward better marks for the region. The Police Department has adopted an anti-idling policy designed to reduce the pollution generated by vehicles left running for prolonged periods of time, and an electric car charging station in the Van Buren parking lot downtown has been used more than 900 times since its installation last fall.
“That has been incredibly popular to date,” said Kate Houlihan, information specialist for the city.
Portions of Naperville’s 2010 Environmental Sustainability Plan are aimed specifically at cleaner air.
The plan calls for a biannual update to the city’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which is being done with help from students involved in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Initiative in Indian Prairie School District 204.
According to Mike Bevis, chief procurement officer for the city, the inventory helps assess how much carbon dioxide the city produces in the generation of energy, incorporating data from the city utility with input provided by such agencies as the Illinois Department of Transportation, ComEd and Nicor.
“We even calculate some of the mileage from trains and planes,” Bevis said.
Data gathered in 2007, 2009 and 2011 is being analyzed now, he said, and a report is expected for release in about a month.
The four-year lens will help identify trends.
“If your community is growing, then you would expect some pollutant discharge to grow,” he said, though that might not end up to be the case. “It’s a complex set of data.”
The city’s renewable energy option enables customers of the municipal utility to purchase credits on their bills, to help support the development of alternative energy technologies. More than 4,500 households are enrolled in the program.
“They’re actually displacing coal (by) helping build windmills and solar collectors,” Bevis said. “Last year the impact of their contribution was the equivalent of removing 3,264 vehicles from the road, or planting 426,000 tree seedlings, and growing them for ten years. ... It’s a matter of a lot of people making small contributions and having a big impact.”
It takes a village
While every little bit helps, policy-driven improvements in air quality can bring the most benefit.
“There’s definitely room and time for us to do some changes here,” Quejada said. “We have to do some things globally, but individual countries can make changes to reduce their air pollution.”
So can cities.
When its effects have been assessed, Naperville’s electric smart grid system “is going to have a huge environmental impact,” Bevis said.
“To fill the electric system with enough energy, you always put a little extra in,” he said, adding that in a traditional system, that surplus sometimes leads to leaking transformers. “The smart grid now lets us keep track of how much people need more closely. So we can reduce that margin (and still) provide all those people with enough energy.”
Projections call for the reduction in energy use to reach about two percent — which Bevis said is greater than it sounds.
“Two percent across the system for the year is significant,” he said.
The reduction will lead to rate stabilization, he said, and less electricity will be generated. And because the grid works on the basis of prioritizing renewable energy, the coal-fired and natural gas-derived energy sources will be tapped less.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Because those are the things that produce the most pollution.”