Victims of China's Air Pollution: Lung Cancer in 8-Year-Olds

Though smoking is on the decline in China, lung cancer rates are rising. Twenty-year olds have joined seniors as likely patients, attributed to the toxic clouds containing particulates that regularly envelope China's eastern cities.

"From 2002 to 2011, the incidence of lung cancer in Beijing rose to 63 cases per 100,000, from 39.6, according to municipal health authorities. Nationwide in the last three decades, an era in which China opened up its economy and industrialized, deaths from lung cancer have risen 465%," writes Barbara Demick.

"When I see patients who are not smokers with no other risk factors, we have to assume that the most probable cause is pollution," said Bai Chunxue, who works at Shanghai's Zhongshan Hospital and is chairman of the Shanghai Respiratory Research Institute.

Back in the 1970s, when (he) was in medical school, the textbook lung cancer patient was a chain-smoking male in his 60s. Nowadays, Bai, one of the physicians who treated the teen, sees so many who are still in their 20s that the cases blend together.

To be sure, "smoking is still cited as the leading cause of lung cancer," notes Demick. Smoking's chief competitor for causing lung cancer now is "the fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5, the microscopic particles from exhaust, coal smoke and vehicle fumes that can burrow their way into lungs."

There still is a veil of secrecy in the government on the effects of the toxic air pollution despite making headlines regularly in Chinese and international newspapers.

(C)onnecting the dots between dirty air and the rising cancer rate is risky. The doctor who first disclosed the case of the 8-year-old girl with lung cancer last month to a reporter from the state-run China News Service appears to have been publicly silenced.

Perhaps that will change when China values the public health of its citizens as much as it does its economy. "Ten years ago, it was sensitive to talk about smoking because the tobacco industry was so important to the Chinese economy. Now it feels safe to talk about smoking," stated cancer researcher Dr. Wei Zhang of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Full Story: Lung cancer: A cloud on China's polluted horizon

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