Air pollution can cause cancers of the neck, especially the throat. The throat is also known as the pharynx. Outdoor air pollution is extremely dangerous and has been classified as a Class I human carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Not only does air pollution increase the risk of cancers of the lungs and head, but also of the neck. Neck cancers are cancers that can occur in the squamous cells lining the mucosal surfaces of the neck, which includes the oral cavity, throat or pharynx, and voice box or larynx.
Squamous cells are thin cells that look like fish scales, are found in the tissue that forms the surface of the skin, the lining of the respiratory and digestive tracts, and the lining of the hollow organs of the body.
How air pollution increases the risk of neck cancer, especially the throat
The reason why air pollution increases the risk of neck cancer is that pollutants have genotoxic and mutagenic effects on DNA. This is a driver for cancer development. In Asia, cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract have increased.
Polluted air consists of chemicals which damage DNA and cause protein adducts, which are complex formed when a chemical binds to a biological molecule.
There are several instances in which persistent DNA or protein damage, including DNA adducts or protein adducts, have been found in human populations in polluted regions, and have been linked to cancer.
Certain DNA adducts can result in genetic mutation and cell carcinogenesis, and is linked with tumour formation.
Inflammation, immune reactions, and oxidative stress
If particulate matter in pollutants induces bodily reactions or immune reactions such as long-term inflammation and oxidative stress in the upper aerodigestive tract, cancer may develop, according to an October 2014 study published in the Chinese Journal of Cancer.
According to Penn Medicine, cells in the throat and neck region become damaged as a result of prolonged exposure to harmful pollutants. This raises concerns about potential long-term health effects.
Long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases risk of laryngeal cancer
According to a March 2023 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, people who have faced long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, or PM2.5 (particulate matter with diameter less than 2.5 microns) are at an increased risk of laryngeal cancer.
The reason why particulate matter increases the risk of cancer is that it contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and when these substances are present on human cell-absorbed PM2.5, intracellular biochemical metabolism activates the polyaromatic hydrocarbons to produce reactive oxygen species.
Industrial emissions and vehicular exhaust are airborne carcinogens
According to experts, breathing in polluted air is like inhaling the enemy due to the presence of airborne carcinogens. This is because the air is filled with pollutants from industrial emissions and vehicular exhaust, which damage the delicate tissues of the throat and other regions of the neck.
“From industrial emissions to vehicular exhaust, the inhalation of these toxic substances poses a direct risk to the delicate tissues of the throat and neck, potentially triggering cancerous developments,” Dr Sajjan Rajpurohit, Senior Director of Medical Oncology at BLK-Max Cancer Center, Delhi, told ABP Live.
The longer the exposure to particulate matter, the greater the vulnerability to neck cancer. Therefore, air quality management is of utmost importance.
“There is a link between prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter and heightened vulnerability to neck cancers. Air quality management is very important,” said Dr Rajpurohit. He called particulate matter and its perils a “microscopic menace”.
Pesticides and heavy metals result in genetic mutations
Pesticides and heavy metals are some environmental toxins that lead to genetic mutations and cellular abnormalities in the throat and neck regions, acting as a “silent saboteur”, said Dr Rajpurohit.
Some substances may serve as co-carcinogens
Fine particulate matter or PM2.5, and volatile organic compounds are carcinogenic agents that are present in polluted air, can enter respiratory pathways, and reach the throat and other tissues of the neck. Certain compounds also serve as co-carcinogens, and enhance the effects of other carcinogenic agents.
“Carcinogenic agents present in polluted air, such as fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, can penetrate respiratory pathways, reaching the throat and neck tissues. Prolonged exposure to these pollutants triggers inflammation and oxidative stress, promoting DNA damage and mutations that can lead to cancer. Additionally, certain pollutants may act as co-carcinogens, enhancing the effects of other carcinogens. It is crucial to raise awareness about the link between pollution and throat and neck cancers, emphasising the importance of environmental measures to mitigate these risks,” Dr Prateek Varshney, Director and Unit Head, Surgical Oncology, Fortis Hospital Shalimar Bagh, told ABP Live.
Who is most vulnerable to air pollution-induced neck cancer?
Children, the elderly, and those with high blood pressure are the most vulnerable to neck cancer due to air pollution.
Children are vulnerable to neck cancer from air pollution because their respiratory systems are in the developing stage, said Dr Rajpurohit.
“People aged 65 years and above, and those with diabetes and high blood pressure are at a higher risk of cancer due to air pollution,” Dr Vineet Kaul, Associate Consultant, The Oncology Centre, CK Birla Hospital Gurugram, told ABP Live.
Risk factors, and how to reduce the risk of developing throat cancer
The risk factors for throat cancers include persistent irritation of the throat, dry cough and difficulty swallowing.
In order to reduce the risk of developing throat cancer, one must use air pollution masks, indoor air purifiers, and constantly drink water to keep the throat moist, according to Dr Kaul.
Green initiatives and policies prioritising air quality are important to mitigate the risk of throat and other neck cancers, according to Dr Rajpurohit.
It is the collective responsibility of society to reduce air pollution and the risks it poses.
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