The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a specialised arm of the World Health Organisation, has sounded an alert for policymakers with its conclusion that there is sufficient evidence now on outdoor air pollution as a cause of lung cancer. A separate evaluation of particulate matter in the air has led to its classification also as a ‘Group 1’ pollutant, indicating firm evidence of cancer-causing properties. Given that rapidly industrialising countries including India have significant levels of air pollution, the conclusions of the IARC call for close study and an effective response. The burden of cancers, including lung cancer, in the country is staggering. In April, the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry said the number of people living with cancer in India stood at 28,20,179 during 2012, and 4,89,875 people died of the disease. Any reduction in the incidence of cancer will therefore have substantial benefits, avoiding staggering costs both to the citizen and the economy. Thus far, air pollution has been known to have a definite impact on respiratory and heart disease, but its link to cancer has now been evaluated through research across continents.
Mitigation of air pollution from key sources such as transport, coal-based power generation, industrial emissions, and cooking using biomass needs sustained policy action. As scientific publications from IARC point out, developing countries are encountering increasing vehicular traffic, which is concentrated in urban areas. This has led to higher exposure to large particulates and sulphur dioxide for millions. It would help clean up the air if taxation policies make it easier to maintain vehicles better, and strict enforcement of pollution control ensures that emissions are well under check. A replacement policy for older vehicles that includes incentives will go a long way in curbing pollution, as will the expansion of public transport and options such as cycling. It is also worth pointing out that the IARC recently referred to the paucity of data on smaller particulates in the air, which is hampering the study of their impact on health. Considering its importance, the programme to assess the threat from particulates in select cities should be intensified and expanded to all towns with a million-plus population. On the question of reducing the harm caused by open burning of biomass for cooking, the Centre has a plan to distribute improved cookstoves during the Twelfth Plan. The latest evidence on the pollution-cancer link should encourage the government to widely license the production of these stoves, and make them affordable enough for all families in need.