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Your Environment. Your Health.


Climate and Human Health

Cancer refers to a group of diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade other tissues. There are more than 100 different types of cancer, usually named after the organ in which it affects, such as liver or breast cancer. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Lung cancer accounts for approximately 30% of overall deaths from cancer in the US; and though smoking is the main cause, air pollution also contributes to the occurrence of lung cancer. Although the development and causes of all cancers are not completely understood, pathogens, environmental contaminants, age, and genetics are all factors in its development.

Cancer patient with blue scarf on her head

Health Impacts

  • Increased exposure to toxic chemicals, known or suspected to cause cancer, that are released into the environment following heavy rainfall or flooding and by increased volatilization of chemicals under conditions of increased temperature
  • Depletion of stratospheric ozone leads to an increase in UV exposure and temperature, increasing the risk of skin cancer and cataracts.  Alternatively, an increase in exposure to UV radiation can lead to elevated levels of Vitamin D, which has been associated with a decreased risk of some types of cancer
  • A decline in air quality and rise in concentrations of certain air pollutants increases the risk of lung cancer

Mitigation and Adaptation

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other hazardous air pollutants, through energy efficient power generation, lower vehicle miles traveled, and efficient industrial processes can decrease toxic outputs of fossil fuel-based power generation and transportation, such as sulfur oxide, nitrous oxides, heavy metals, and particulate matter
  • Increasing and preserving green space in urban settings
  • Exploring the use of new technologies that decrease greenhouse gas emissions, such as nanotechnology, biofuels, electronic vehicles, and solar cells.  However, it is important to note that the impacts of some mitigation technologies have not been fully explored yet and may have unintended negative health consequences
  • Employing sun safety actions, such as increased use of sunscreen and staying covered up in the sun, can reduce the risk of cancer from an increase in UV radiation
Nurse checking cancer patient in hospital bed

Research Needs

  • Using animal cancer surveillance and investigations as sentinel biomedical models to better understand the environmental factors, mechanisms, and pathways of mammalian cancer risk
  • Understanding the impact of increased heavy precipitation and flooding events on the risk of toxic contamination of the environment from storage facilities or runoff from land containing toxic chemicals, including the geographical areas, ecosystems, and populations most likely to be impacted and the health outcomes that could result
  • Understanding how climate changes such as changes in temperature and precipitation affect exposure to toxic chemicals including volatile and semi-volatile compounds and known or suspected human carcinogens
  • Elucidating the effects of ambient temperature on UV radiation- induced skin cancers, including the amplification of non- melanoma skin cancers
  • Evaluating the potential cancer risks through the entire lifecycle of biofuel production, including risks from novel air pollutants and changes in agricultural practices that may increase exposures to pesticides, herbicides, and other environmental contaminants
  • Understanding cancer risks from the lifecycle emissions of carcinogens and untested compounds associated with alternative energy and transportation technologies, particularly electricity storage systems and photovoltaic systems
  • Clarifying the lifecycle cancer risks of nuclear energy radiation, including through occupational and environmental exposures
  • Developing mechanisms to conserve and explore marine and terrestrial biodiversity in environments likely to yield cancer cures and treatments
  • Characterizing and quantifying changes in cancer rates from implementation of specific greenhouse gas mitigation strategies, especially for existing fossil fuel-based energy production and use

For more information, please visit the chapter on Cancer in A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change (Full Report) (4MB).

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