Pollution causes 10 per cent of all cancer cases in Europe

Report by the European Environment Agency EEA

LB – 07/2022

Exposure to air pollution, passive smoking, radon, ultraviolet radiation, asbestos, certain chemicals and pollutants causes about 10 per cent of all cancer cases in Europe. This is according to a recently published report by the European Environment Agency (EEA). These risks can be prevented in many cases.

The European Union records approximately 1.3 million cancer-related deaths per year. In addition, there are about 2.7 million new cases of oncological diseases per year. Although Europe accounts for less than 10 per cent of the world's population, it accounts for almost 20 per cent of cancer deaths and 23 per cent of oncological incidence worldwide. This has serious consequences – for the individual, for society, for the economy and also for social security. Reducing environmental and occupational risks is crucial if the goals of comprehensive EU cancer prevention initiatives are to be achieved.

Cancer leads to considerable impairments for those affected and their families. Even though their development has still not been definitively clarified, research has been able to prove numerous risk factors for this disease. Some of these, such as age or genetic factors, cannot be influenced.

Risks can be prevented

However, many risk factors of oncological diseases can be mitigated. On the one hand, this includes aspects of behaviour and lifestyle (e.g. tobacco consumption, diet or obesity). On the other, environmental influences also play a role and can be adjusted accordingly. The Online report of the EEA takes a closer look at these and summarises the scientific evidence on correlations between select known environmental and occupational cancer risks in Europe. Finally, a brief overview of EU policies is presented.

Environmental protection is health protection

Environmental and occupational risk factors analysed by the EEA include air pollution, radiation, pollutants and chemicals. The study concludes that an estimated 10 per cent of the cancer burden in Europe can be attributed to it. Therefore, reduction in the corresponding risks through environmental and occupational health and safety measures could significantly reduce the number of cancer cases throughout Europe. It should be noted that many cancers have a long latency period, i.e. both the consequences of exposure to risk factors and the effect of measures to reduce them only become apparent much later.

EU initiatives target environmental and occupational risk factors

Many EU cancer prevention plans and initiatives include the reduction of environmental cancer risks in their prevention strategies. These include, for example, the European Beating Cancer Plan or the Roadmap on carcinogens as well as EU-funded research projects looking at different aspects of cancer prevention and the impact of reducing environmental or occupational cancer risks. These are accompanied by other action plans to protect the environment, such as the Zero Pollution Action Plan or the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment.