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Lung cancer: No longer just the disease of non-smokers?

Air pollution hangs over Mumbai.

Lung cancer is often thought of as a tobacco user’s disease, but new UK research suggests this may not be the case.

Experts say non-smokers account for one in six lung cancer cases in the UK. Professor Paul Cosford – who himself is battling the disease, despite being a non-smoker – saidthe absolute numbers and rates of lung cancers in never-smokers are increasing.” The study identifies breathing in secondhand tobacco smoke, hazards in the workplace, and indoor and outdoor pollution are among the key factors driving increased incidence of lung cancer in people who do not use tobacco.

The research carries significant implications for the world at large, including India. Last year, experts warned of a lung cancer epidemic in the country. They suggested that deaths from the disease outnumbered mortality due to colorectal, breast, and cervical cancers.

Tobacco use continues to be a significant public health concern in India. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 28.6 percent of Indian adults and 14.6 percent of Indian youth currently use tobacco. In addition, 38.7 percent of Indian adults and 21.9 percent of Indian youth are exposed to secondhand smoke.

“Lung cancer is spreading rapidly among non-smokers and other groups the disease does not usually affect, including women and those aged under fifty years.”

Health Issues India has previously noted that, even though the number of smokers has declined in the last decade, 232 million Indians continue to use tobacco on a daily basis. However, as the UK research shows, tobacco use is not the sole driver of rising rates of lung cancer. As previously reported by Health Issues India, lung cancer is spreading rapidly among non-smokers and other groups the disease does not usually affect, including women and those aged under fifty years.

Pollution could be a significant explanation for this worrying trend. India is home to seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world. In 2017, 1.2 million Indians lost their lives to the disease. Pollution, both indoor and outdoor, ravages India’s health. It shears years off of our life expectancies – especially children’s – and drives up disease rates. This is not limited to cases of lung cancer, but is inclusive of numerous other conditions including chronic respiratory diseases, asthma, and diabetes.

This pollution not only comes from the obvious sources, such as industry and traffic. It comes also from crop burning and the indoor use of unsafe fuels, a problem especially pronounced in rural areas. This is one of the reasons why rural India accounts for 75 percent of pollution-related deaths.

The impact of pollution on lung health should not be surprising, though this makes it no less tragic. In a year which already has carried with it multiple reminders of the many ways pollution is ruining Indians’ lives, this is the latest reminder that until the air quality apocalypse is resolutely addressed, people will suffer and people will die.

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