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Time for action on air pollution

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 4 November 2013

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has reclassified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans after a review of the latest scientific literature.

The IARC concluded that there is now sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer, and that there is also a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

The reclassification puts outdoor air pollution into Group 1 of carcinogens, meaning that “there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans”.

Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, a principal research fellow in the Faculty of Health at Queensland University of Technology, said Australian policymakers needed to pay attention to the change in classification.

“There is a generally complacent attitude to air quality in Australia, which is based on our air being cleaner than other countries, such as China, and the fact that most air pollutants are invisible and odourless”, Professor Barnett said.

“But just because we can’t see the pollutants doesn’t mean they aren’t harming us.

“Studies in Australia have shown associations between increased outdoor air pollution and hospital admissions in children and the elderly, reduced lung function in children, asthma, shorter gestations for pregnant women and death.

“A lack of any serious policy action has meant that there’s been no clear improvement in air quality in the last decade in Australia’s major cities for the two important air pollutants of ozone and particulate matter.

“Traffic is the major source of pollution in Australian cities, so if we want cleaner air then we either need cleaner cars or fewer cars.”

  • Cate Swannell


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