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The Ultimate Lung Killer: Air Pollution

November 2023

When someone mentions lung cancer, my mind almost instantly goes to the thought of the commercials (trigger warning) featuring former smokers with tracheostomies or voice boxes. I can vividly remember how it made me feel, what it made me think, and ultimately, knowing I never wanted to touch a cigarette a day in my life. But lung cancer is much more than consuming tobacco products. It is a disease that has become a global public health issue, and one of the focuses of November is raising awareness on lung cancer.

What once was a rare disease, has turned into a global public health crisis causing over 1.8 million deaths per year.

These facts can be concerning; there's no denying that. What was once a rare yet frightening disease primarily affecting smokers now also poses a risk to non-smokers due to certain environmental and occupational exposures to various types of hazardous substances. It's important to approach this topic with sensitivity, considering the diverse experiences of individuals, including those who smoke.

We all know who works and lives on the frontline of the most hazardous environments—our communities. Lung cancer disproportionately affects communities of color, particularly African American, Native American, and Hispanic populations. Studies have shown that these communities often face higher levels of exposure to environmental toxins, including air pollution, due to factors such as residential segregation, proximity to industrial areas, and limited access to healthcare resources.

The link between lung cancer and air pollution underscores broader issues of environmental injustice and systemic racism. Low-income and minority communities are more likely to be located near sources of pollution, such as factories and highways. This increases their risk of exposure to harmful substances, leading to higher rates of lung cancer. Many individuals in communities of color already face pre-existing health disparities, including higher rates of respiratory conditions like asthma. These pre-existing conditions can make them more susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution, further increasing their risk of developing lung cancer.

Advocacy for stricter environmental regulations and policies is crucial in addressing the root causes of air pollution and its connection to lung cancer. This includes efforts to reduce emissions from industrial facilities, improve air quality standards, and promote sustainable urban planning.

Grassroots organizations and community leaders play a vital role in advocating for this cause, but so do we. There are a multitude of ways to help advocate, from organizing local clean-up efforts to pushing for policy changes at the municipal and state levels or even starting a social media campaign. Advocacy can be a lot easier than you may think. Given that most cases of lung cancer are identified in advanced stages, it is crucial to focus on early detection methods, especially in communities with higher risk factors. This includes promoting regular screenings, raising awareness about symptoms, and ensuring that healthcare resources are accessible to all.

Empowering individuals with information about the risks of air pollution and lung cancer, as well as providing resources for prevention, is key. To continue to see the change our society desperately needs, it starts with us. It starts with not only addressing the intersection of environmental health and overall well-being but also taking the next steps to better our built environments, together.


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