Cancer and Pollution: A Fact Sheet for Michigan

BY ON December 11, 2013

Air Pollution

Outdoor air pollution causes cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that air pollution causes more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths each year, most of them in developing countries. Air pollution also contributes to deaths from bladder cancer, according to WHO.

Outdoor air pollution is comprised primarily of ground level ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot). It comes from cars, trucks, power plants, diesel engines, industrial and agricultural emissions, and home heating and cooking.

Outdoor air pollution has been linked to many other serious health problems, including stroke, heart attacks, premature death, asthma attacks, low birth weight, and premature birth.

In Michigan, the biggest source of soot pollution is coal fired power plants. Nine coal plants in Michigan have been deemed to be below standard, meaning that they spew soot into the air at levels the federal government deems unsafe. They are increasing the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, low birth weight, and many other serious health problems in Michiganders.

The Harvard Six Cities Study update, which indicates a significant relationship between fine particle pollution – the “soot” that comes from coal burning power plants, diesel engines, and tailpipes – and cardiovascular mortality, concludes that “public policy efforts that reduce fine particulate matter air pollution are likely to have continuing public health benefits” (Lepeule, Laden, Dockery, and Schwartz (2012). Environ Health Perspect 120:965-970).

Toxic Chemicals in the Environment

If you could see inside the bodies of Americans, you would find hundreds of industrial, synthetic chemicals. Most of these chemicals have never been tested for safety, due to a federal regulatory system that permits chemicals to be sold without adequate health testing. This body burden of potentially toxic chemicals is a special concern to women, as these chemicals may be found in placental tissue, cord blood, and breast milk.

In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel released a report highlighting the role of environmental toxins in cancer development. The report confirmed that exposure to environmental chemicals is an important and under-recognized risk of cancer.

Commonly Found Chemicals Known or Reasonably Anticipated to Be Human Carcinogens






Carbon Tetrachloride

Chromium (hexavalent)Coal Tars


Ethylene oxide



Methylene Chloride



Sulfuric Acid

Toluene Diisocyanate

Trichlorethylene (TCE)

Vinyl Chloride

[Source: Safer Chemicals Healthy Families]

According to the President’s Cancer Panel, “all levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants”.


Cancer is a leading cause of childhood mortality. Although death rates from childhood cancer are declining due to treatment advances, rates of cancer diagnosis in children are on the rise. The causes of childhood cancer are largely unknown. Genetic abnormalities account for only a very small proportion of childhood cancer. Research into the causes of childhood cancers is ongoing, and researchers are examining the role of both indoor and outdoor air pollution, as well as exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides, solvents, and flame retardant chemicals.

Children are more susceptible to environmental pollutants than adults. Children’s bodies are developing rapidly; they eat, drink and breathe more per pound of body weight than adults; they spend more time outside than adults; and their patterns of behavior at different developmental stages – such as mouthing toys and putting their hands in their mouths – can increase their exposure to environmental pollutants. It is up to us to fight on their behalf!

Breast Cancer

Dozens of industrial chemicals have been shown to increase the rates of mammary tumors in rodents, interfere with breast development, or increase the risk of breast cancer in people. Health professionals are concerned about whether our exposure to these common chemicals may increase our risk of breast cancer.

Widely recognized mammary carcinogens include 1,3-butadiene, aromatic amines, benzene, ethylene oxide, organic solvents, and vinyl chloride (PVC). In addition, endocrine disrupting chemicals change the body’s natural hormonal balance, influencing cancer risk indirectly. Breast cancer is sensitive to hormonal changes. Atrazine, parabens, Bisphenol-A (BPA), PFOA, phthalates, PBDEs, and triclosan are among many industrial chemicals that are commonly found in consumer products and in our environment, and that are known to disrupt the endocrine system. [Source: The Breast Cancer Fund]

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), one such environmental chemical, is a byproduct of combustion. One of the major sources of PAH is coal fired power plants. PAH also comes from diesel engines, grilled meats, and cigarettes. It gets into the air we breathe, and from there into our bodies. Exposure to PAH has been associated with increased risk of breast cancer. PAHs are lipophilic and are stored in the fat tissue of the breast.

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TOPICS: Indoor Air Pollution, Michigan