EEA reports on link between pollution and cancer in Europe

05 July 2022

Article: 56/2609

On 29 June 2022, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report, which found that exposure to pollution causes over 10% of all cancer cases in Europe. With nearly three million new patients and 1.3 million deaths each year across the EU, cancer takes a huge toll on society, with the economic costs at around 178 billion euros in 2018 alone. 

The EEA study suggests that most of these environmental and occupational cancer risks can be reduced by preventing pollution and changing behaviours, with reducing to these risks offering an effective and cost-effective way of reducing cancer cases and associated deaths. 

In main findings of the report: 

  • Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, is linked to around 1% of all cancer cases in Europe, and causes around 2% of all cancer deaths, though in the case of lung cancers alone, this rises to 9% of deaths. Recent studies have detected associations between long-term exposure to particulate matter, a key air pollutant, and leukaemia in adults and children. 
  • Indoor exposure to radon is linked to up to 2% of all cancer cases and one-in-ten lung cancer cases in Europe. Natural ultraviolet radiation may be responsible for up to 4% of all cancer cases in Europe. In particular, the incidence of melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, has increased across Europe over the last few decades. 
  • Exposure to second-hand smoke may increase the overall risk for all cancers by up to 16% in people who have themselves never been smokers. Around 31% of Europeans are exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke at home, work, during leisure, in educational institutions or in public settings. 
  • Certain chemicals used in European workplaces and released into the environment are carcinogenic and contribute to causing cancer. Moreover, several of these chemicals are known or suspected to induce cancer in multiple organs, including lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, acrylamide, pesticides, Bisphenol A and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). 
  • All forms of asbestos are well-known carcinogens, associated with mesothelioma and lung cancers, as well as laryngeal and ovarian cancers. While the EU banned asbestos in 2005, it remains present in buildings and infrastructure, leading to the exposure of workers involved in renovation and demolition work. In addition, cancers continue to manifest many years after exposure, with asbestos estimated to account for 55-88% of occupational lung cancers. 

Source: EEA, 29 June 2022