Clean the air, prevent cancer

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Christian Friis Bach

Christian Friis Bach [United Nations Economic Commission for Europe]

We can do more to prevent people from getting cancer, for example by increasing efforts to reduce the amount of pollutants in the air, says Christian Friis Bach.

Christian Friis Bach is executive secretary and under-secretary-general at the UN Economic Commission for Europe.

Today, on World Cancer Day, I am with all those who are affected by cancer — individuals who are struggling with the disease as well as their families and friends. In recent years I, too, have been personally affected, as cancer struck members of my family and some of my best friends. Cancer is a terrible global disease, causing millions of deaths worldwide every year.

We can do more to prevent people from getting sick. One way is to increase our efforts to reduce the amount of pollutants in the air we breathe. Air pollution is already known to increase risks for a wide range of diseases, including respiratory and heart diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution killed more than 7 million people worldwide in 2012. This makes it more deadly than malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS combined, and by far the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

In 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer also classified outdoor air pollution as causing cancer. Data from 2010 show that 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide are attributable to air pollution. Air pollution is thus a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths. This is highly disturbing.

We must therefore take action to improve air quality. We must take action across national boundaries, but also across sectors. We must take action at power stations, at industrial installations and in individual homes. Action must be taken by car makers and car owners, by farmers across the vast pan-European region, by those burning wood in a home furnace and, last but not least, by each and every one of us. Reducing air pollution must be a high priority on our health agenda to prevent cancer and other diseases. 

Since 1979, UNECE has been working to improve air quality through its Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention), which sets emission targets for Parties to reduce air pollution. The result of this collective effort has been spectacular: emissions of a series of harmful substances have been reduced by 40 to 70% since 1990 in Europe. The air we breathe today in Europe and North America is much cleaner than it was 30 years ago. 

But we must do more and we must take global action. This is why air quality has been selected as one of the two main themes at the next Environment for Europe ministerial conference in Georgia in 2016. This is why air quality is a key priority in the expected Sustainable Development Goals.

Breathe in and breathe out. Let’s get to work. 

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