Surge in 'non-smoking' lung cancer in China

Air pollution is a serious issue in China, especially in cities such as Beijing. China recorded nearly 4.3 million new cancer patients in 2015. More than 730,000 of them had lung cancer, accounting for nearly 36 per cent of the world's total. Interna
Air pollution is a serious issue in China, especially in cities such as Beijing. China recorded nearly 4.3 million new cancer patients in 2015. More than 730,000 of them had lung cancer, accounting for nearly 36 per cent of the world's total. Internationally, small-scale studies have associated air pollution exposure with lung cancer.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Experts believe it may be related to long-term exposure to air pollution, particularly PM2.5

BEIJING • The Chinese health authorities are trying to figure out the reason for the rapid rise in a form of lung cancer that develops deep in the lung and is not associated with smoking.

China has seen a sharp increase in the disease over the past 10 to 15 years, hitting groups traditionally not susceptible, such as women and non-smokers, said Dr Xue Qi, deputy director of thoracic surgery at the Cancer Hospital, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences - the country's national cancer institute.

"It might be related to the long-term exposure to air pollution, particularly PM2.5," he said, referring to particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less.

China's top health authority has been watching people's health in relation to air pollution since 2013, said National Health and Family Planning Commission spokesman Mao Qun'an.

"We need more research over a longer time to figure out the long-term health effects of air pollution," he said.

"Cancer is developed over a long period, not overnight."

According to latest statistics from the government, China recorded nearly 4.3 million new cancer patients in 2015. More than 730,000 of them had lung cancer, accounting for nearly 36 per cent of the world's total.

There are two major types of lung cancer - lung adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. The latter is closely associated with smoking.

Of newly detected lung cancer patients each year, the cases of adenocarcinoma - involving more females and non-smokers - have exceeded that of smoking-related carcinoma, even though the smoking rate in China has not declined, Mr Xue said, citing figures from the nation's cancer registry.

Ten to 15 years ago, squamous cell carcinoma took the lion's share of all lung cancer cases, roughly 60 per cent, he said. "At that time, most of the sufferers were smoking males, who are at high risk."

The incidence of lung cancer has surged in recent decades. For instance, in the 1960s, the incidence of lung cancer in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, stood at seven per 100,000 people. That surged to 70 per 100,000 in 2005.

Some lung disease experts suspect the rise might be related to PM2.5, but more research is needed to know for sure.

Mr Xue said more government research funding and projects in the field are needed.

Internationally, small-scale studies have associated air pollution exposure with lung cancer, but a direct link has not yet been confirmed with large, long-term studies, he added.

Industrialised countries saw a rise in the proportion of adenocarcinoma before China, according to Mr Xue, who said lung adenocarcinoma is now the most common type of lung cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma has decreased over recent decades in Western countries due to an ever decreasing smoking population, he added.

CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2017, with the headline 'Surge in 'non-smoking' lung cancer in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe