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Cancer Health Center

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New York Tops in Pollution Cancer Risk

Rural States Have Lowest Risk, Says EPA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 23, 2006 - Nearly 42 out of every million Americans will develop cancer as a direct cause of pollution spewed by cars and factories, according to projections compiled by the federal government.

The data, completed last month, predict that airborne pollutants would be expected to cause cancer in 41.5 out of every 1 million U.S. residents. The data are based on 1999 levels of 177 pollutants, many of which the Environmental Protection Agency says are now decreasing.

EPA spokesman John Millett called the projections "rough estimates" based on pollutant measurements and predicted rate of cancer that those toxicants -- many of which are known carcinogens -- would cause.

The figures assume 70 years of exposure in a particular location at 1999 pollution levels. That means that actual risks could be substantially higher or lower as people move between communities.

New Yorkers Most at Risk

New York residents are at highest risk for pollution-induced cancers, according to the data, which were analyzed in a Los Angeles Times article this week. Slightly more than 68 per million of the state's residents are expected to develop cancer due to pollution, according to the EPA.

California was close behind with a 66-per-million rate, followed by Oregon, which has a 63-per-million projected cancer rate.

Some of the most rural states, including North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, had the lowest projected average risk. A 15-per-million average increased cancer rate in South Dakota was the nation's lowest projected state increase.

Millett, the EPA spokesman, urged caution in interpreting the data, which he says were never intended to provide a state-to-state comparison of cancer projections. "This is a snapshot from seven years ago, and a lot has probably changed. It's probably changed for the better."

The agency estimates that toxic emissions from vehicles will be 80% below 1999 levels by 2030. Those levels are already dropping, he says.

Risk Tied to Pollution

The numbers don't take into account many other potential cancer causes, including smoking, diet, or obesity.

They also don't measure risks due to diesel fumes. Toxins from diesel construction vehicles, buses, trucks, and farm equipment are still considered a major source of carcinogens and have been a source of criticism from environmental groups who say the Bush administration is not pushing reduction efforts quickly enough.

"The gaping flaw in this report is that it ignores the cancer risk from diesel fumes, and that may be the biggest cancer risk of all," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

O'Donnell agrees that the Bush administration is "on course to make some improvements" in the 177 toxins listed in the national database. But he says quicker action on diesel could lower cancer rates more quickly "without having to wait a quarter of a century" until 2030.

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