Environmental Cancer in Europe: How Should We React?

According to a report from the European Environment Agency published on 28 June, exposure to pollution would be the cause of 10% of cancers in Europe.  This pollution includes air pollution, second-hand smoke, radon, UV radiation, asbestos, as well as many other substances that have the reputation of being dangerous.

Which importance for environmental cancer in Europe?

Each year cancer represents 3 million new patients and 1.3 million deaths in the European Union.  According to the EEA, out of these 1.3 million, 250,000 would be caused by environmental cancer including over 20,000 young people.

On a global scale, despite Europe representing 10% of the population, it reports almost 23% of new cases of cancer and 20% of deaths related to cancer.  According to the studies carried out to date, cancer would also be the main cause of occupational deaths in the European Union.

It ought to be noted that according to the European Commission, these estimations would however be limited due to knowledge deficiencies and uncertainties.  It is therefore likely that these numbers are underestimated.  The European Commission indeed considers that “unless we take decisive action now, cancer cases are set to increase by 24% by 2035, making it the leading cause of death in the EU”.

In Europe, cancer is the most common type of noncommunicable disease and the second most common cause of death after circulatory diseases.  In concrete terms, this means that almost all Europeans are likely to be affected by cancer in one way or another, whether it is themselves, their relatives or acquaintances.

Furthermore, the fact that several cancers have latency periods means that today’s pollution will potentially be the cause of future cancers.

In addition to this health burden, there is also an economic burden: in 2018, for example, cancer would have cost 178 billion Euros.

Percentage of premature cancer deaths attributable to environmental risks in Europe in 2019

Percentage of premature cancer deaths attributable to environmental risks in Europe in 2019

What precisely are these risks?

Environmental risks that contribute to the development of cancer can be divided into six categories:

  • Air pollution: both indoor and outdoor air pollution are thought to cause lung cancer and other types of cancer.
  • Radon: exposure to radon inside buildings would be a major cause of lung cancer.
  • UV radiation: excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation would be a major cause of skin cancer, including malignant melanoma.
  • Chemicals: many chemicals are known to cause cancer in various organs, including contaminants in water, soil and air.
  • Passive smoking: exposure to passive smoking is identified as a cancer risk even for people who have never smoked themselves.
  • Asbestos: asbestos is recognised as a major cause of mesothelioma and lung cancer.

How can these risks be avoided?

According to the EEA, there are effective and inexpensive ways to reduce the risk of environmental and occupational cancers: simply reducing exposure to pollution, including through behavioural changes. The European Commission considers that 40% of cancers could be avoided through the implementation of strategies that would prevent the disease, save lives and reduce suffering.

Too many cancer cases would indeed have an underlying environmental cause that it would be possible to protect oneself from by limiting pollution and exposure to harmful substances, which would be beneficial for both humans and the environment.  A reduction of these risks should therefore be directly correlated to a decrease in cancer rates.

Europe’s role

Many directives are constantly being implemented by the EU as part of the “zero pollution” action plan in relation to the reduction of environmental cancers.  The main initiatives taken by Europe in this respect are listed below:

  • Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan: a political commitment to turn the tide against cancer and another steppingstone towards a strong European Union Health and a more secure, better prepared and more resilient EU. The plan is expected to receive 4 billion Euros in funding.  The proposed measures include a reduction in environmental pollution by complying with the World Health Organisation guidelines on air quality, as well as exposure to carcinogens and harmful radiation.
  • The EU’s Cancer Mission: a mission to save more than 3 million lives by 2030.
  • The European Code Against Cancer: A European Commission initiative listing 12 ways to reduce one’ s risk of developing cancer, notably including second-hand smoke, radon and potential carcinogens at workplaces.
  • The roadmap on carcinogens: on 25 May 2016 a convention aiming at implementing strategies to raise awareness regarding the risks resulting from exposure to carcinogens at workplaces was signed by six European organisations. This convention was then renewed in November 2019 and signed by new European organisations.

During a conference of the German Presidency entitled “Preventing work-related cancer”, a new strategy 2020-2024 was then presented with four goals:

  • creating awareness in companies and employees regarding the risks of exposure to carcinogens and the need to carry out preventative actions in the whole of Europe.
  • providing help to prevent exposure to carcinogens in workplaces and to reduce their effects.
  • mobilising stakeholders and increasing the involvement of the parties concerned, in order to multiply the efforts throughout Europe.
  • targeting innovation to bridge the gap between research results and the needs of companies.

Although there are still many uncertainties and a growing need for access to data, the European Union is actively working on the implementation of various measures and prevention strategies.  It will now be important for companies to follow these developments closely in order not to risk being sanctioned by this new context.

Sylvie Gallage-Alwis

Nancy Forster