Outdoor air pollution is officially linked to cancer: what it means for Latin America and Mexico

Yesterday experts at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), officially classified outdoor air pollution as being “carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC called outdoor air pollution one of the leading environmental causes of cancer deaths, confirming its link to both lung cancer and bladder cancer. In addition, experts also separately identified particulate matter —a big part of outdoor air pollution— as a carcinogen. This follows a similar announcement last year, which confirmed that diesel engine exhaust is in the same category. The most recent data shows that 223,000 people died from air pollution-caused lung cancer in 2010.

This is particularly worrying news for countries with high levels of air pollution, weak or no emissions regulations, and little monitoring of air quality. Unfortunately, many countries in Latin America fit this profile. A study released earlier this year by the Clean Air Institute found that, from Argentina to Mexico, air pollutants have reached dangerous levels and that few countries have the ability to  reliably monitor their air quality. The study also concluded that, of the 16 countries in the region who measure airborne particulate matter (PM10, or particles smaller than 10 micrograms per cubic meter), all exceeded the WHO’s recommended level. Of the 11 countries measuring for fine particulate matter (PM2.5, or particles smaller than 2.5 micrograms per cubic meter), 10 exceeded the WHO’s recommended level.

This means that over 100 million people in Latin America breathe polluted air. And that, in turn, means that over 100 million people in Latin America are at risk of developing lung cancer.

The good news is that countries in Latin America can minimize these risks and avoid many of these unnecessary deaths. The IARC found that a major source of outdoor air pollution, and therefore also particulate matter, is transportation. By passing and implementing fuel quality and vehicle emissions regulations, they can significantly improve the quality of the air that tens of millions of people across the region breathe.

Some countries have already passed these types of standards, to the benefit of their citizens’ health as well as the environment, including the U.S., Chile, Colombia, and members of the European Union, among many others. Experience in the U.S. also shows that these regulations are extremely cost effective, and that every dollar invested can save between $16 and $40 in health benefits.   

The next country in the Western Hemisphere to enact fuel quality and vehicle emissions regulations could—and should—be Mexico. The WHO attributed 14,700 deaths to air pollution in 2010. The Mexican government has been working on these standards for years (the first blog my colleague, Rich Kassel, wrote on the issue was in 2007), but it has been unable to successfully pass and implement them for various reasons. In fact, Mexico already passed a regulation in 2006 requiring cleaner diesel fuels, but, importantly, it needs updating and actual implementation (a fuller account of that bill’s lack of teeth is here).

Fortunately, things are looking up. The country has one of the best air quality monitoring systems in Latin America, and the results are available in real time online. The Peña-Nieto administration passed a standard in June regulating fuel efficiency in cars and light-duty trucks through 2016. Next on the docket should be a new, updated fuel quality regulation and an emissions regulation for heavy-duty vehicles.

If the government is able to pass good, updated standards and implement them, it would result in a win-win for everyone. The standards would make Mexico’s vehicles cleaner and more efficient, on par with the best cars and trucks in the world. They would help Mexico meet its emissions and climate goals. They would also–importantly–help prevent unnecessary deaths, potentially saving the government and citizens a lot of money on health care costs.

The news that the IARC is adding air pollution and particulate matter to the list of carcinogens that cause cancer in humans, in addition to diesel engine exhaust, should make it all the more critical and urgent that countries in Latin America, starting with Mexico, prioritize passing good fuel quality and vehicle emissions regulations. This simple and proven solution could protect millions of people from being at risk of suffering from lung cancer.