Report: Air Pollution Puts Cancer Survivors At Risk For Respiratory Illness

Apr 23, 2019, 6:53 PM

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — If you are a young cancer survivor living on the Wasatch Front, Utah’s winter air pollution can cause serious health problems for you.

That’s supported in new research from Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah.  The researchers hope their work can help patients nationwide.

We’ve known about significant respiratory health problems from our winter particulate pollution for a number of years now. But, no one had ever studied the impact of air pollution on cancer survivors.

“Cancer survivors have been a bit of an overlooked population in this regard,” said Dr. Judy Ou, a Huntsman Cancer Institute Cancer Epidemiologist and lead author on the study.

Hoping to change that, Dr. Ou and Dr. Anne Kirchhoff examined records of nearly 4,000 childhood cancer survivors diagnosed or treated at Primary Children’s Hospital over 24 years. Then, they tracked their emergency room hospitalizations for respiratory illness.

The study was divided into three groups: those who received chemotherapy as part of their cancer treatment, those who didn’t receive chemotherapy and a cancer-free group.

Dr. Anne Kirchhoff and Dr. Judy Ou

Dr. Anne Kirchhoff and Dr. Judy Ou

The researchers found the risk for respiratory hospitalization was significantly higher among the survivors who received chemotherapy compared to the cancer-free group.

“Cancer survivors do have a higher risk for respiratory problems due to fine particulate matter,” said Dr. Ou. “The risks may be especially higher among those that receive chemo. Cancer survivors should really be considered in the same sensitive group as people with asthma or children, or the elderly.”

Poor air quality significantly raises the risk of hospitalization for respiratory issues among young survivors of cancer. The risk for hospitalization was twice as high among those who received chemotherapy compared to the cancer-free group. Those patients may be more vulnerable because of lung damage and potential immunosuppression resulting from chemo.

“We can’t say that the air pollution is definitely causing this. We can just say that it’s associated,” said Dr. Douglas Fair, a Primary Children’s Hospital Pediatric Oncologist.

Air pollution cannot be isolated as the only cause.  Of the 3,819 survivors in the study, 185 had a total of 335 respiratory events documented in their medical record. 91 percent of hospitalizations and 75 percent of emergency room visits took place along the Wasatch Front counties of Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Weber.

“So, we’re really hoping our studies start to raise awareness of the issues around environmental health, and the health of cancer survivors,” said Dr. Kirchhoff.

She said she hopes their work inspires cancer survivors nationwide to talk with their doctors about coping with particulate air pollution. There’s a bigger societal conversation, too.

“We as a society should be collaborating together to come up with better solutions to help this group of people who are very vulnerable,” said Dr. Ou.

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Report: Air Pollution Puts Cancer Survivors At Risk For Respiratory Illness