WHO says air pollution causes lung cancer

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Could the air you breathe cause lung cancer? The World Health Organization says yes.

"They found convincing evidence that air pollution is a major risk factor for lung cancer. In fact, they now think it's the second most important risk factor after smoking," said Dr. Robert Paine, who is a physician and chief of the Pulmonary Division at the University of Utah's School of Medicine.

He's also the director of the program for Air Quality and Society at the school.

"There are many patients who develop lung cancer who smoke, but there are also a significant amount of people who develop lung cancer who never smoke cigarettes,” he said.

The World Health Organization said air pollution is now officially a carcinogen. In 2010, lung cancer caused by pollution killed more than 200,000 people worldwide. Erin Mendenhall of Breathe Utah said the findings are illuminating.

"This shows what we knew 20 years ago, even 10 years ago about air quality wasn't quite accurate," she said.

Mendenhall said the state should be paying especially close attention to WHO's latest findings. She spoke in-depth with FOX 13 News about the issue, click here for that interview.

"Our particle pollution is what we are currently out of compliance for our federal clean air act, which is regulated by the EPA," Mendenhall said.

Paine said steps should be taken to deal with Utah’s air quality concerns.

"There's tremendous enthusiasm for improving air quality in Utah now; it's wonderful,” he said. “We need to push ahead with that enthusiasm.”

Local environmental groups have made a lot of noise, pushing the state legislature to take a hard look at Utah's poor air quality.

Just this week, Gov. Gary Herbert introduced the "Clean Air Action Team" which is responsible for recommending public policy.  Mendenhall said air quality is an important cause.

"The more that we get from a federal and a worldwide level supporting the cause that we have to clean up our air, the more support we have to hopefully come away with more strict regulations or more clear tools that the public can use to reduce our impact, because we all contribute to air pollution," Mendenhall said.

One thing Dr. Paine does point out is that the World Health Organization's findings are tied to cases of people who are being exposed to bad air or pollution long-term. Here in Utah, there isn't that long-term exposure because, according to the Governor's Office, only about 5 percent of our days would be classified as bad air days.