Air Pollution: A Place-Based Exposure

At a Glance

Over the past few years, an explosion of scientific research has found that exposures to certain chemicals in polluted air are connected to breast cancer risk.

Air pollution is a complex mix of toxicants that can vary in composition and have a wide range of harmful health effects.

Studies have consistently linked elevated levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2) – a substitute for measuring vehicle traffic emissions –to increased risk for developing breast cancer.

Other exposures, especially to very small particulate matters (PM2.5 and PM10) found in vehicle and industrial combustion byproducts are also linked, although the concentration of these chemicals in air pollution can vary by socioeconomic and other community-based factors, making it harder to pinpoint health effects.

Air Pollution_Placed Based Exposure_Glossary of Exposures Linked to Breast Cancer

Background: Air pollution as a complex variable

A major source of many environmental chemicals linked to increased risk for disease, including breast cancer, is the air we breathe.  Airborne toxicants include fine particulate matters (for example PM2.5 and the slightly larger PM10); nitric oxides including, of particular importance, nitrogen dioxide (NO2); black carbon (soot); heavy metals, including cadmium; polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); benzene, etc. [1],[2],[3]

Air pollution can develop very locally as a consequence of cigarette or other tobacco smoking.  At a broader scale (within city blocks, neighborhoods, larger regions), pollution is generated by vehicular and industrial combustion, wildfires and other sources of biomass burning., byproducts of industrial manufacturing and distilling. Importantly, recent evidence has demonstrated disparities in the composition and distribution of air pollutants, with higher concentrations of many pollutants being measured in communities of color and, more generally, in communities facing higher levels of socioeconomic and environmental stressors.[4],[5],[6],[7] A recent (2021) study of breast cancer cases in the large Monterey Metropolitan Area in Mexico examined local distribution patterns and spatial associations between sources of pollution and cancer incidence. They found a clustering of breast cancer cases within the municipality in areas of highest air pollution density.[8]

Evidence that links exposure to air pollutants and breast cancer

In the past few years, there have been many studies, both in the US and internationally e.g.,(France,[9] Chile,[10] Brazil,[11] Korea,[12] Taiwan[13]) and several systematic reviews and meta-analyses conducted to examine possible relationships between exposure to air pollution and risk of developing breast cancer.[14],[15],[16] The most common pollutants studied included the nitric oxides, especially nitrogen dioxide, and the very small (less than 2.5 microns in diameter) particulate matter, PM2.5.

  • Most studies and analyses have concluded that a significant relationship exists between recent (usually current or the past 2-5 years) levels of NO2 exposures and risk of developing breast cancer. The relationships were strongest for premenopausal breast cancer, and for hormone receptor positive (ER+/PR+) cancers.[17],[18]
  • Among women in the Multiethnic Cohort from the greater Los Angeles area, for those who lived within 500m of major highways, significant relationships were found between air NO2 exposures and breast cancer risk. The relationship was strongest for African American and Japanese American women in comparison to Latina and white women.[19] This ethnic difference may be important in interpreting other data from studies where cohorts were comprised primarily of white women.
  • The results for studies of possible relationships between exposures to particulate matter (either PM5 or PM10) are more ambiguous. Recent reviews and meta-analyses found no significant relationship,[20],[21] or very small effects[22] when women across cohorts were aggregated together. Geographical differences in effects were reported, with higher associations in European studies than in those conducted in the US.[23] Suggested explanations included differences in air pollution composition as affected by geographical, socioeconomic, and other factors.

Similarly, White et al. found complex interactions in the US-based Black Women’s Health Study.[24] Although they did not find an overall association between PM2.5 levels and breast cancer incidence in a large, longitudinal (18 year follow-up period) study of Black women across the country, they did find interesting and robust interactions between menopausal status and geographic location. Increased PM2.5 exposures were associated with increased ER- tumors and cancers in premenopausal women in the Midwest, but decreased ER- tumors and premenopausal cancers in the South. Differences in the composition of the particulate matter, including varying levels of industrial metals, were suggested as possible mitigating factors.[25]

Other components of industrial air pollution have been linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer.

  • A Chinese study of women from both rural and urban regions found that use of coal for cooking fuel was associated with a doubling of risk for developing breast cancer, while wood burning was not associated with elevated cancer risk compared with use of ‘clean fuel’ (natural gas).[26]
  • An examination of exposures to non-metallic air pollutants and breast cancer in the large, prospective Sister Study demonstrated that exposures to several toxicants, especially methylene chloride (a major industrial solvent), to be linked to increased risk of developing the disease. The effect was particularly pronounced for hormone receptor positive (ER+/PR+) tumors, and in overweight and obese women.[27]
  • Exposure to higher air-borne levels of benzo[a]pyrene (BaP), a biproduct of incomplete combustion of organic solvents, was significantly associated with risk of breast cancer. The effect was strongest for women who had recently transitioned through menopause, and for hormone receptor positive tumors.[28]
  • Atmospheric exposures to PCB153, one of the most prevalent of the polychlorinated biphenyls used in the manufacturing of electronics and construction materials, is also associated with increased risk of breast cancer. The effect was only significant for ER+ tumors.[29]

What about indoor air pollution?

Most people spend the majority of their time indoors. People who live in highly polluted areas are likely to have some of those toxic pollutants in their homes, schools and offices also. These exposures can be exacerbated by exposure to cigarette and other types of smoking, by releases from cooking and burning in fireplaces and woodstoves, and by using products (cleaning, personal care, fire retardants, etc.) that are found indoors. These chemicals can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.

Who is most likely to be exposed to air pollution?

Women who live in high density urban areas; areas around vehicular traffic, especially those with high traffic levels; and neighborhoods with industrial manufacturing and processing, are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution.

Who is most vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution?

Geographic, socioeconomic, and ethnic factors may be important, with indications that Black and Japanese American women may be more vulnerable. Depending on the particular pollutant being studied, premenopausal, perimenopausal, and postmenopausal women may all be vulnerable to the cancer-associated effects of exposures to air pollution.

Infants and small children are particularly vulnerable to the disease-causing effects of indoor pollutants because they play on floors, put their hands in their mouths, and have a greater sensitivity to many indoor pollutants.

Top tips to avoid exposures

It is difficult, at a personal level, to control exposures to outdoor pollutants.

  • Wearing a face mask with a PM 2.5 filter will decrease exposures to dangerous particulate matter that carries other chemicals in the air.
  • When possible, exercise (walk, run, bike) as far away from major highways as is possible to avoid high levels of diesel and other combustion products.
  • Participate in community efforts to shut down, or clean up, polluters in your community.
  • Pressure county and state governments to provide air quality monitors in your neighborhood so you can know what your air contains, and so that you can use these data in community-based action.

Indoors:

  • Vacuum frequently using a HEPA filter.
  • Clean surfaces frequently using a damp rag and wash the resulting dust particles down the drain.
  • If economically possible, install air filters, especially in rooms where you and your children spend most time.
  • Do not smoke (cigarettes, e-cigs, etc.), especially not indoors. And do not allow others to smoke in your home, office, or school.

[1] Chambliss, S.E., Pinon, C.P.R., Messier, K.P., LaFrench, B., Upperman, C.B., … Apte, J.S.  (2021). Local- and regional-scale racial and ethnic disparities in air pollution determined by long-term mobile monitoring. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 118(37),e2109249118.

[2] Zentano, J.S., Rosende, P.F., Manzur, B.C., Vega, I.S. (2021).  Breast cancer incidence and the air pollution level in the communes of Chile: an ecological study. eCancer 15, 1191.

[3] Dominski, F.H., Branco, K.H.L., Buinanni, G., Stabile, L., da Silva, M.G., Andrade, A.  (2021). Effects of air pollution on health: A mapping review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Environ Res  201, 111487.

[4] Chambliss, S.E., Pinon, C.P.R., Messier, K.P., LaFrench, B., Upperman, C.B., … Apte, J.S.  (2021). Local- and regional-scale racial and ethnic disparities in air pollution determined by long-term mobile monitoring. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 118(37),e2109249118.

[5] White, A.J., Gregoire, A.M., Neihoff, N.M., Bertrand, K.A., Palmer, J.R., Coogan, P.F., Bethea, T.N. (2021). Air pollution and breast cancer risk in the Black Women’s Health Study. Environ Res 194, 110651.

[6] Nguyen, N.P., Marshall, J.D. (2018). Impact, efficiency, inequality, and injustice of urban air pollution: variability by emission location. Environ Res Lett 1, 024002.

[7] Tessum, C.W., Paolella, D.A., Chambliss, S.E., Apte, J.D., Marshall, J.D.  (2021). PM2.5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States. Sci Adv 7(18), abf4491.

[8] Gasca-Sanchez, F.M., Santuario-Facio, S.K., Ortiz-Lopez, R., Rojas-Martinez, A., Mejia-Velazquez, G.M., Garza-Perez,, E.M. …Santos-Guzman, J.  (2021).  S[atial interaction between breast and ernvironmental pollution in the Monterrey Metropolitan Area.  Heliyon, doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e07915.

[9] Lemarchand, C., Gabet, S., Cenee, S., Tvardik, N., Slama, R., Guenel, P. (2021).  Breast cancer risk in relation to ambient concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter: Results of a population-based case-control study corrected for potential selection bias (the CECILE study).  Environ Intl 155, 106604.

[10] Zentano, J.S., Rosende, P.F., Manzur, B.C., Vega, I.S. (2021).  Breast cancer incidence and the air pollution level in the communes of Chile: an ecological study. eCancer 15, 1191.

[11] Brito-Marcelino, A., Duarte-Tavares, J., Marcelino, K.B., Silva-Neto, J.A.  (2020).  Breast cancer and occupational exposures: a integrative review of the literature.  Rev Bras Med Trab, 18(4), 488-496.

[12] Hwang, J., Bae, H., Choi,S., Yi, H., Ko, B., Kim, N. (2020)  Imp[act of air pollution on breast cancer incidence and mortality: a nationwide analysis in South Korea.  Sci Rep 10, 5392.

[13] Li, Y-C., Chiou, J-.Y., Wei, J. C.-C., Y, M-H.  (2021). The association between air pollution level and breast cancer risk in Taiwan.  Medicine 100, 19.

[14] Gabet, S., Lemarchand, C., Guenel, P., Slama, R. (2021).  Breast cancer risk in association with atmospheric pollution exposure:  A meta-analysis of effect estimates followed by a health impact assessment. Environ Health Persp 129 (5), 057012-7.

[15] Wei, W., Wu, B.-J., Tong, Z.-T., Zhong, F., Hu, C-Y.  (2021). Association between long-term ambient air pollution exposure and the risk of breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis.  Environ Sci Pollut Res, doi.org/10.1007/s11356-021-14903-5.

[16] White, A.J., Bradshaw, P.T., Hamra, G.H. (2018). Air pollution and breast cancer: A review. Curr Epidemiol Rep, 5 (2), 92-100.

[17] Lemarchand, C., Gabet, S., Cenee, S., Tvardik, N., Slama, R., Guenel, P. (2021).  Breast cancer risk in relation to ambient concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter: Results of a population-based case-control study corrected for potential selection bias (the CECILE study).  Environ Intl 155, 106604.

[18] Gabet, S., Lemarchand, C., Guenel, P., Slama, R. (2021).  Breast cancer risk in association with atmospheric pollution exposure:  A meta-analysis of effect estimates followed by a health impact assessment. Environ Health Persp 129 (5), 057012-7.

[19] Cheng, I., Tseng, C., Wu., J, Conroy, S.M. … Wu, A.H. (2020) Association between ambient air pollution and breast cancer: The multiethnic cohort.  Int J Cancer, 146, 699-711.

[20] White, A.J., Bradshaw, P.T., Hamra, G.H. (2018). Air pollution and breast cancer: A review. Curr Epidemiol Rep, 5 (2), 92-100.

[21] Wei, W., Wu, B.-J., Tong, Z.-T., Zhong, F., Hu, C-Y.  (2021). Association between long-term ambient air pollution exposure and the risk of breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis.  Environ Sci Pollut Res, doi.org/10.1007/s11356-021-14903-5.

[22] Gabet, S., Lemarchand, C., Guenel, P., Slama, R. (2021).  Breast cancer risk in association with atmospheric pollution exposure:  A meta-analysis of effect estimates followed by a health impact assessment. Environ Health Persp 129 (5), 057012-7.

[23] Gabet, S., Lemarchand, C., Guenel, P., Slama, R. (2021).  Breast cancer risk in association with atmospheric pollution exposure:  A meta-analysis of effect estimates followed by a health impact assessment. Environ Health Persp 129 (5), 057012-7.

[24] White, A.J., Gregoire, A.M., Neihoff, N.M., Bertrand, K.A., Palmer, J.R., Coogan, P.F., Bethea, T.N. (2021). Air pollution and breast cancer risk in the Black Women’s Health Study. Environ Res 194, 110651.

[25] White, A.J., Gregoire, A.M., Neihoff, N.M., Bertrand, K.A., Palmer, J.R., Coogan, P.F., Bethea, T.N. (2021). Air pollution and breast cancer risk in the Black Women’s Health Study. Environ Res 194, 110651.

[26] Liu, T., Chen, R., Zheng, R., Li, L. Wang, S. (2021) Household air pollution from solid fuel combustion and female breast cancer. Front Pub Health 9: 677851.

[27]NIehoff, N.M., Gammon, M.D., Keil, A.P.,, Nichols, H.B. … White, A.J.  (2019).  Airborne mammary carcinogens and breast cancer in the Sister Study. Environ Int 130: 104897.

[28] Amadou, A., Fraud, D., Coudon, T., Deygas, F., Grassot, L. … Fervers, B.(2021). Risk of breast cancer associated with long-term exposure to benzo[a]prenen (BaP) air pollution: Evidence from the French E3N cohort study.

[29] Deygas, F., Amadou, A.,  Condon, T., Grassot, L.,Couvidat, F., … Praud, D. (2021).  Long-term atmospheric exposure to PC153 and breast cancer risk in a case-control study nested in the French E3N cohort from 1990 to 2011. Environ Res 195: 110743.

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