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The Links Between Air Pollution and Lung Cancer Risk

It’s important to understand the dangers that air pollution can create in your life, especially as air pollution levels continue to rise. It’s also important to be aware of how you can minimize your exposure to this toxic air pollution.

November is lung cancer awareness month and while there are many potential contributing factors to lung cancer cases one that has been overlooked is air pollution. Air pollution is a major public health issue and can aggravate respiratory illnesses, and it is, as we’ll cover below, a cause of lung cancer. 


Ambient Air Pollution vs Indoor Air Pollution

Outdoor (ambient) and indoor air pollution are different but both can be contributing factors to lung cancer. The difference between outdoor and indoor air pollution is as simple as it sounds. Outdoor air pollution is pollution existing outside and indoor air pollution is the pollution inside a building. 

There’s an overlap, of course, as outdoor air pollutants can seep into your home and affect your indoor air quality. Whether it’s an indoor or outdoor air pollutant there’s a risk of lung cancer from air pollution exposure. 

The surprising fact about indoor air pollution is that it’s actually worse than outdoor air pollution. That’s right, air pollution is worse inside. We spend most of our time inside so it’s more bad news that air pollution is worse indoors. 

The most common indoor air pollutants are typically released by common household appliances like gas stoves, living creatures like dander from dogs, or items like cleaning supplies. 

Common indoor air pollutants include:

Asbestos - A fine mineral found in construction building materials like roofing shingles and floor tiles that can cause issues like shortness of breath and wheezing.
Biological Pollutants - Biological contaminants are living things in your home including bacteria, viruses, animal dander, cat saliva, house dust, mites, cockroaches, and pollen.
Carbon Monoxide (CO) - An odorless, colorless, and deadly toxic gas that can be released from common household devices like gas stoves and furnaces.
Cookstoves - Fine particulate matter pollution is created when people cook their food and warm their homes by burning items like coal or wood.
Formaldehyde - A chemical that is found in countless household products like cleaning supplies that can cause irritation of the skin, nose, eyes, and throat.
Lead (Pb) - A dangerous element that mostly shows up in old lead-based paint.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) -Aa toxic gas that can be created indoors from sources like gas stoves and tobacco smoke.
Pesticides - Toxic chemicals that are used to control or kill pests in your home.
Radon (Rn) - Exposure to radon, a natural radioactive gas, in particular causes lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers.
Indoor Particulate Matter - This particle pollution is small enough to be inhaled and cause issues; there are several household sources of indoor particulate matter like cooking and cleaning.
Secondhand Smoke - The dangers of firsthand smoking are well-known, and unfortunately secondhand smoke can create similar health issues like lung cancer in those who are exposed to cigarette smoke.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - Gasses emitted from various household products like paint and disinfectants.
Wood Smoke - Indoor wood smoke from cookstoves or fireplaces can create fine particulate matter that can be inhaled and damage lung cells.


The major outdoor air pollution problems come from sources like vehicle exhaust, power plants, and wildfires. Outdoor air pollution is categorized into 6 main pollutants including carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, particulate pollution, and sulfur oxides. But, there are a lot more pollutants in the air. 

common indoor and outdoor air pollutants

There is good news about indoor air pollution being worse than outdoor air pollution. That’s because we’re able to control indoor air a lot easier than outdoor air. HEPA air purifiers will filter out any dangerous particles floating around in your indoor air before you can inhale them. 

In short, inhaling dangerous gasses and fine particulate matter in the air is one of the leading causes of lung cancer, and running a HEPA air purifier will clean your indoor air. 


What is the cancer risk from outdoor air pollution?

The fine particulate matter from outdoor air pollution can cause cancer when inhaled. While smoking is the biggest action that leads to lung cancer deaths, it’s important to note that those who don’t smoke can still be diagnosed with lung cancer. 

Exposure to fine particulate matter can change the way your lung cells replicate, which is what leads to the increased cancer risk. 

Air pollution hurts everyone. Air pollution stunts children’s lung growth and can aggravate any existing respiratory health issues. Any exposure to air pollutants can harm human health and lead to serious issues like lung cancer or heart disease. 

While outdoor air pollution is a major concern there are other pollutants that can increase your risk for lung cancer. Radon exposure can lead to a lung cancer diagnosis. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer only behind smoking. Radon exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer deaths for non-smokers. 

Radon naturally disperses outdoors so it’s not as dangerous of an outdoor air pollutant, but the real danger comes when there is radon gas present indoors. The only way to be sure of radon gas in your home is to test the levels of radon present. If you do find radon gas present, then immediately contact a professional to clear your home.  

Since we can’t individually control outdoor air pollution, controlling your indoor air quality is the best defense against the increased risk of lung cancer and other diseases caused or aggravated by outdoor air pollution. 


Actions to reduce cancers induced by air pollution

The best way to stop air pollution that causes human disease, like lung cancer, is stop the exposure to air pollution altogether, but that’s easier said than done. It’s impossible to completely control your environment enough to never be exposed to pollution again, but there are easy steps to follow to make sure you’re lowering your air pollution levels indoors and minimizing your outdoor air pollution exposure. 

There are countless health risks associated with exposure to high concentrations of air pollution. Respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer are a few of the common yet serious effects air pollution exposure can have on human health. While you can’t control your outdoor air pollution you can do things on an individual basis to prevent or reduce problems associated with air pollution. 

First, you can track your local air quality (and pollen levels) with this Oransi tool. Knowing the air pollution levels in your town can help you plan out your day. Staying indoors and avoiding unhealthy air quality days altogether is ideal. 

Spokane, Washington air quality

For example, if your area is affected by wildfires like in the Spokane, Washington area, then you’ll want to protect yourself from the lingering effects of wildfire smoke. Staying indoors, cleaning your indoor air with HEPA and carbon activated air purifiers, and reducing indoor air pollution activities like using gas appliances is your best option. If you have to go outdoors, wear an N95 mask to help filter out smoke particles before it’s inhaled. 

Minimizing actions that create air pollutants in your home and at work is essential. Checking for radon gas and asbestos and getting professional help to clear out your indoor space if these are  found is crucial in maintaining healthy and clean air. Avoiding indoor pesticide use and any kind of smoke whether from a fireplace, scented candles, vaping, or cigarettes will help too. There are even formaldehyde free household cleaners that can get the job done just as well. 

Minimizing the creation of indoor air pollutants and maintaining clean air is the best way to reduce the harmful effects of air pollution. It might not seem easy to decrease indoor air pollution at home and at work, but there are ways to get it done and create a safe environment. Cleaning your indoor air with a quality real HEPA air purifier will filter out any pollutants that are still sneaking into your home and be a good, solid step in the right direction when protecting your respiratory health.