Ambient Dirty Air May Put Some People at Higher Risk for Head and Neck Cancers

Diesel particulate levels tied to increased oral and pharyngeal cancer incidence in one state

Living in areas with high levels of ambient air pollution may be a risk factor for some head and neck (H&N) cancers, a researcher said here.

In a study that linked data from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2018 Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, there was a significantly greater risk for the development of H&N cancer, and oral and pharyngeal cancer in particular, in places with high levels of diesel particulate matter (OR 2.67, 95% CI 1.68-4.26, P<0.001), reported Tirth Patel, MD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

In addition, ages >65 had a higher risk for H&N cancer development (OR 1.15, 95% CI 1.09-1.23, P<0.001), he said in a poster at the American Head and Neck Society annual meeting. However, Patel noted to MedPage Today that cancer rates in general tend to be higher in older people.

“We work with a lot of H&N cancers, oral and throat cancers, so we wanted to see if the findings that link air pollutants to lung cancer also holds true for H&N cancers,” Patel explained. “We found that diesel particulates were higher in [U.S. Postal Service] zip codes that had rates of oral and throat cancers. We saw a 2.5 times greater risk of H&N cancers in the people who lived in these areas where there were higher levels of diesel particulate matter — particularly oral and pharyngeal cancer.”

“We speculate that the pollutants cause changes in the cells that can make them turn from normal cells into cancerous ones. It is likely one of a number of factors involved in this change,” he added.

Patel and colleagues used data from the single-state cancer registry (2014-2018) and identified cases of oral and pharyngeal cancers by zip codes, and then used the EPA tool map where pollutant levels were highest. The pollutants they examined included ozone, particulate mater of <2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5), and diesel particulate matter. “Air pollutant levels in zip codes within the top quartile of oral/pharyngeal cancer incidence were compared with pollutant levels in the lowest quartile of incidence,” the authors explained.

Patel reported that they found no statistically significant associations for H&N cancer with ozone levels (P=0.15), minority population residency (P=0.46), or low income versus high income areas (P=0.94).

However, the authors did find that in a binary logistic regression analysis that diesel particulate levels (P<0.001) and percentage of the population ages >65 (P<0.001) were significant predictors of a zip code belonging to the high versus low incidence group. Patel noted that diesel particulate matter is usually associated with trucking, and is greatest in areas near ports, railways, and freeways.T

he authors pointed out that additional research is needed to establish a causal link.

Rema Kandula, MD, of Louisiana State University Health Sciences in Shreveport, noted that other research has “indicated that air pollution is related to all types of cancers. I think everyone knows that air pollution is linked to lung cancer, but now we see how air pollutants can be linked to oral and pharyngeal cancer.”

“These results are consistent with what I would expect,” Kandula, who was not involved in the study, told MedPage Today. “Of course, this study is not just relevant to Illinois but everywhere in the world where we have severe air pollution, and especially in developing countries, such as my native India.”

Ambient Dirty Air May Put Some People at Higher Risk for Head and Neck Cancers | MedPage Today

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