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Air pollution, tuberculosis, lung cancer: What is the link?

They affect human lives by large numbers, especially by attacking the lungs.

Written by Debjani Arora |Published : April 3, 2018 5:38 PM IST

If you sit back and think these three words air pollution, tuberculosis and lung cancer might appear to have very less in common among them, barring the fact that they affect human lives by large numbers. But a close look and you will understand all three of them can affect the person's lung and account for some irreparable damage.

Think of air pollution the first thing that comes to our mind is the toxins we breathe in, given that most of the cities in India are heavily polluted. Once you breathe in those deadly toxins they definitely reach your lungs and make them go weak by attacking every cell of the crucial organ. Imagine if a baby is born in a heavily polluted area and breathes the air which constitutes of heavy toxins right from day one after birth, how weak and frail his lungs could be by the time he reaches 30? Weak lungs are prone to innumerable respiratory diseases and illnesses.

Talking about conditions like tuberculosis and lung cancer, they too are conditions that affect a weak lung. So, how air pollution comes into the picture? Well, breathing in the toxic air makes the lungs weak and so this makes the organ vulnerable to a bacterial attack or a cancerous growth.

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Why do we need to worry about air pollution?

The air these days is not just polluted with dust and grime the most dangerous pollutant which is present in the air these days is fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). This air pollutant is deadly and potent too which has a damaging effect on people's health. PM 2.5 particles are a mixture of solids and liquid droplets floating in the air. These particles can be less than or equal to 10 micrometres in diameter and have the potential to get into your lungs when you inhale bad quality air. And once it gets into your lungs it can cause serious consequences.

'There is a conversion which says when you inhale PM 2.5 weighing around 22.5mg it's damaging effect is equivalent to that of smoking one cigarette. If you inhale PM 2.5 of say 200mg then it's equal to about smoking 10 cigarettes a day. So if somebody is born and living in a city with an average air PM 2.5 of 200 +, the damaging effects that his lungs are subjected to by inhaling the air is like smoking 10 cigarettes a day,' says Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman, Center for Chest Surgery and Director, Institute of Robotic Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital (SGRH) New Delhi.

In fact, experts and oncologists also believe that environmental pollution is one of the many reasons why we see an increased number of lung cancer patients among non-smokers. Breathing in the fine particulate matter doesn't spare our lungs. In the recent past, there has been a surge of lung cancer patient and almost 50 percent of them showed no history or had any risk factors for being a smoker. In fact just two to three decades back, the lung cancer was somewhere 4th or 5th in terms of overall cancer incidence. But today lung cancer is one of the largest affected cancers in males in India and is rising rapidly in females also.

This is not all weak lungs can also make one susceptible to diseases like Asthma, COPD, Bullous Lung Diseases, Pneumothorax, including infections as well as Tuberculosis which tend to occur with higher frequency in the polluted and damaged the lung.

Once reason of acquiring an infection like TB is low immunity and weak lungs that are damaged and polluted with toxins can do so little to resist the bacterial infection. Also, the symptoms of lung cancer and TB are quite similar and that makes the diagnosis even tricky. Lung cancer also presents with a cough, blood in the sputum, TB also presents with a cough and blood in the Sputum, so about 10-20% of the patients that we see ultimately diagnosed with lung cancer, the earliest part of their symptoms presented to doctors have been treated for tuberculosis. This is why it is necessary to check for lung cancer also in people who show the above-mentioned symptoms and live in heavily polluted areas as being a victim of air pollution can make one susceptible to both tuberculosis and lung cancer.

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