UW scientists find increased risk of breast cancer from exposure to a component of diesel exhaust

Center for Ecogenetics & Environmental Health (CEEH) researchers Joel Kaufman and Kerryn Reding are interested in understanding the effects of exposure to air pollution from diesel exhaust on human health. 

Dr. Kaufman, who is also Director of the UW DISCOVER Center: Cardiovascular Disease and Traffic-Related Air Pollution, researches the effects of exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a component of diesel exhaust, on the cardiovascular system. Recently, Joel discussed his team's work in a podcast for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (NIEHS PEPH).

Now, a study by Dr. Kerryn Reding from the UW School of Nursing and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center shows that women exposed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have an increased risk of developing the most common form of breast cancer, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. NO2 is another a component of diesel exhaust.

Some past studies looking for possible connections between breast cancer and air pollution have reported associations with both PM2.5 and NO2. To get a clearer picture, Dr. Reding and her group, who represent the UW Schools of Nursing and Public Health, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, University of Bergen, Norway, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), undertook a large-scale study that spanned 4.5 years. They analyzed data from 47,591 women in the Sister Study, a National Institutes of Health Study of the Environmental and Genetic Risk Factors for Breast Cancer. The researchers adjusted for demographics (age, income, education) and health behaviors (body mass index, smoking) to estimate the risk of developing breast cancer after exposure to NO2, PM2.5 and PM10 from air pollution.

The study found no increased risk of breast cancer from PM2.5 or PM10. In the women who had higher than average exposures to NO2, it found a 10% increased risk of hormone receptor-positive (ER+/PR+) breast cancer. 

People who live or work near major roadways have a higher than average exposures to diesel exhaust and NO2. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)48 million people in the United States live within 300 feet of a major highway, railroad or airport. Living near a major roadway confers a higher risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease, impaired lung development and childhood leukemia, low-birthweight babies, and premature death. 

Dr. Reding's research was published in the December 2015 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Another summary of Dr. Reding’s study was published in UW Health Sciences NewsBeat.

-- Marilyn Hair

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