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Study Links Breast Cancer And Car Exhaust

October 7, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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The more air pollution from vehicle engines, the greater the risk of breast cancer.

That’s the startling finding of a new Canadian study, published online Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The researchers created maps showing estimated levels of air pollution from vehicle traffic in various areas of Montreal for 1986 and 1996. They compared the maps to the home addresses of women diagnosed with breast cancer in a 1996-1997 study. The incidence of breast cancer was higher in areas with greater pollution.

“We found a link between postmenopausal breast cancer and exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is a marker for traffic-related air pollution,” said coauthor Mark Goldberg, PhD, a researcher at The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in Montreal. He was quoted in an MUHC news release.

“Across Montreal, levels of NO2 varied between 5 ppb to over 30 ppb,” Dr. Goldberg said. “We found that risk increased by about 25 percent with every increase of NO2 of five parts per billion. Another way of saying this is that women living in the areas with the highest levels of air pollution were almost twice as likely to develop breast cancer as those living in the least-polluted areas.”

Dr. Goldberg cautioned that the study was hardly definitive. “First of all,” he said, “this doesn’t mean NO2 causes breast cancer. This gas is not the only pollutant created by cars and trucks, but where it is present, so are the other gases, particles, and compounds we associate with traffic, some of which are known carcinogens. NO2 is only a marker, not the actual carcinogenic agent.”

In addition, the researchers didn’t know how much time the women spent at places other than home—and what the pollution levels at those other places might have been.

Still, the findings are intriguing, especially because—to hear Dr. Goldberg tell it, at least—the study originated in somewhat random fashion.

“We’ve been watching breast cancer rates go up for some time,” he said. “Nobody really knows why, and only about one third of cases are attributable to known risk factors. Since no one had studied the connection between air pollution and breast cancer using detailed air pollution maps, we decided to investigate it.”

Related seminar: Breast Imaging and Digital Mammography

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