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Toxic Air

There is increasing evidence that environmental factors, including the air we breathe, are linked to breast cancer.

Scientific research connects air pollution to increased risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD), Crohn’s disease, leaky gut syndrome, autism, and Parkinson’s disease. And, long-term exposure to fine particles in the air can also cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies these particles as Group 1 human carcinogens along with asbestos, silica dust, and tobacco smoke. So, it’s no surprise that air pollution causes respiratory disease and lung cancer. But it also causes bladder, liver, and pancreatic cancer. Now there is a link between air pollution and breast cancer.

Air pollution is made up of thousands of chemicals, gases, organic substances, and particulate matter (PM). Superfine particles less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a human hair. These superfine particles can readily get into the bloodstream and then track to specific body tissue, like the bladder or breasts.

Particulate Matter

The designation PM refers to atmospheric particulate matter. Air pollution particles at PM2.5 are so tiny they can only be seen using electron microscopy. PM2.5 particles easily penetrate lung tissue, but also get into the blood stream and find their way into the gut and breast tissue. Once in the body, their damage DNA sets the course towards cancer.

Fine Air Pollution Particles

Exposure to PM2.5 particles causes oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, and negative expression of DNA methylation that maintains cell integrity.

In a study published in April 2017 in Breast Cancer Research, researchers confirmed a causative connection between superfine particles found in air pollution and breast density.

Breast density is a term a radiologist uses to compare the amount of healthy fatty tissue to fibrous tissue found on a mammogram. Breast density is ranked into four categories from normal tissue with plenty of natural fat to extremely dense with little fat and filled with scar-like tissue. Increased breast density is linked to higher risk for breast cancer.

Is There a Blood Test for Levels of Pollutants in Your Body?

There are no blood tests to determine particulate matter in your body. However, there are clues. For one, air pollution can trigger anemia. A 2017 study found that air pollution is a significant factor in causing anemia.

About two-thirds of anemias found in American seniors, a group of people who would have the most prolonged exposure to pollution over their lifetime, are caused by chronic inflammation or classified as “unexplained.” Air pollution exposure increases systemic inflammation, which undermines the formation of red blood cells and leads to anemia.

If you have unexplained anemia or anemia that does not improve by taking iron, folate, and vitamin B12, the cause might be accumulated superfine particles from pollution. Other anemia triggers include toxic metals like arsenic. So, have a blood test for heavy metals including mercury, cadmium, lead, and arsenic.

What Can Women Do to Reduce the Toxic Effects of Air Pollution?

  1. Know the Level of Air Quality in Your Area
    The Environmental Protection Agency uses the Air Quality Index (AQI) to rate air pollution level. AQI provides a color-coded scale of 0 to 500. Green is considered good with a value of 0 to 50. Every state monitors air quality including ozone and other gases, as well as particulate matter PM10 and PM2.5. Go online and find your state’s environmental protection website to check out the air quality in your town.
  2. Monitor Your Indoor Air
    Indoor air testing services can investigate the air quality in your home or workplace. But keep in mind that standards vary, and reactions to chemicals and allergens vary depending on individual sensitivity. You can order air quality test kits for carcinogens and other pollutants. And, you can install an air quality monitor with sensors that transmit information about pollutant levels right to your smartphone. Some monitors, like those from Dylos Corporation, use laser counters to count particulate matter, including superfine PM2.5 particles.
  3. Install High Quality HEPA Air Filters
    To improve air quality in your home, workplace, and car, outfit them with air filters. HEPA filters work well for general air clean up, but they won’t catch every superfine particle in urban smog. And, filters don’t capture gases. Some are better than others. Look for models that combine HEPA technology with superfine particle filtration. Blueair makes purifiers that capture airborne particles and are highly rated by Consumer Reports. If you live in Beijing or New Delhi, an air purifier that beats smog is essential. But even in Los Angeles or Miami, a HEPA filter helps keep pollution levels down in your home.
  4. Get Regular Breast Exams
    If you have increased breast density detected on a mammogram, for comparison, I recommend having a breast ultrasound at the same time as your next mammogram. Because mammograms use x-rays, radiation exposure builds up over a woman’s lifetime.

    An annual mammogram for women with healthy breast tissue, without high risks for cancer, is not necessary. However, those women with increased breast density require regular monitoring and screening. Though breast thermography is useful to monitor physiology, a thermogram cannot image breast density.

  5. Take Nutritional Supplements That Counter Pollutants
    Nutritional supplements counter pollutants by antioxidant and DNA protection. They can also modulate the epigenetic effects of superfine PM2.5 particles. A 2017 study found that B-vitamins had a positive impact on cells damaged by fine pollutants. Taking a B-complex cofactor form is my recommendation.

    Other nutrients that help counter the harmful effects of pollution include Omega-3 fish oil, Vitamins C, D, and E, and chlorophyll as found in wheat and barley grass.
    There is a media buzz about nicotinamide riboside’s (NAD+) ability to counteract aging and modify chronic diseases. Living longer and better requires counteracting the effects of pollution. NAD+ may prove to be another tool to prevent cancer, slow aging, and counter the effects of pollution.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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