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02/06/2013

Is indoor air in China causing lung cancer?

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A man puts on a mask on an elderly man while several foreigners hand out free masks to pedestrians in an effort to promote public awareness to use masks for protection from polluted air in downtown Shanghai. (AP Photo)

We know how terrible the pollution is in China’s big cities.  When the smog spewed out from chemical factories and car emissions gets too much the best advice from the experts is to stay indoors.

But what if the air inside Chinese homes is just as bad?

A new study suggests breathing indoor air can be dangerous and may even cause lung cancer, University of Buffalo researchers found.

Hot oil used in stir-fries, second hand tobacco smoke and heating a house with coal may all be contributing to increased cancer risks among non-smokers, especially among women.  

“We suspect that indoor air pollution plays a much larger role in the development of lung cancer among Chinese women,” Dr. Lina Mu, lead author of the paper told The Star in an email.

Mu and her team wanted to know why lung cancer rates among Chinese women were among the highest in the world – 21 cases per 100,000 – when the smoking rates were so low. Only four per cent of Chinese women smoke cigarettes, compared with 60 per cent of men. Smoking itself accounts for less than 20 per cent of lung cancer in women. 

"This suggests that other important risk factors contribute to the disease in this population," she said.   

They found indoor particulate matter levels were at least twice as high as those recommended by the World Health Organization. For example, PM2.5, microscopic particulate matter that can embed deep into the lungs and pose a serious health hazard, were 68 micrograms per cubic metre.

Women are at higher risk than men because they stay home for longer periods of time and cook more often, Mu said.

Many homes have no ventilation and opening the window to clear the air isn’t always an option anyway – the study took place in Taiyun city in the north, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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