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Tech by VICE

It's Official: Cars and Coal Are Giving You Cancer

The World Health Organization just fingered coal and cars as a leading cause of cancer worldwide. And they're getting your bladder.

by Brian Merchant
Oct 17 2013, 3:45pm
Image: Flickr

Car exhaust and power plant emissions are now officially considered a leading cause of cancer worldwide. Not just harbingers of respiratory illness, ashtma, and lung disease—cancer. Our rides and our juice are killing us after all, and in ways we'd never imagined. They're giving us bladder cancer, for one. 

That comes from the latest finding from the World Health Organization, which just published an extensive report that determined there was a distinct link between industrial pollution and cancer. According to the report, "Exposure to ambient fine particles was recently estimated to have contributed 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2010, due largely to cardiovascular disease, and 223, 000 deaths from lung cancer."

Besides declaring a "definitive" link between cancer and particulate pollution—the fine-grained particles of soot and sulfates that get launched into the air through exhaust pipes and smokestacks and wind up in our lungs—the research shows that there is strong evidence that it causes bladder cancer, too.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the WHO division that compiled the report, notes that the brunt of the damage is being done in developing nations that are using dirtier transportation and energy technologies—old coal tech and more jalopies—and mostly in Asia. 

"More than half of the lung cancer deaths attributable to ambient fine particles were projected to have been in China and other East Asian countries," the report says. This isn't, unfortunately, a surprise. Previous reports have found that air pollution results in 620,000 yearly premature deaths in India, and is the leading cause of death in China with 530,000 annual fatalities.

Image: Wikimedia

Here in the US, our lungs are a bit pinker. Our strong clean air standards—first adopted by the Nixon administration after massive environmental protests in the late 60s and early 70s—have forced carmakers and power plant operators to consistently adopt less-polluting technologies. 

But we still get well over a third of our power from dirty coal plants, and the gas-burning internal combustion engine powers the vast, vast majority of our transit. We're still breathing in car spit and power plant soot, and it's ending about 200,000 of our lives early as a result.

None of this is speculation anymore. Breathing in car exhaust and coal plant fumes are killing us. Of course those who live closest to the ancient rusty plants and the traffic-jammed highways have it worst—they also happen to tend to be the poorest—but none of us are safe. Studies have shown that the air pollution described above can make some serious trails; across borders, continents, even oceans. There's a real concern that China's congestion and coal frenzy are contaminating their global neighbors' air. 

Coal and cars are also the biggest sources of carbon pollution too, of course. So they're smogging up our streets, choking our lungs, and warping the climate. Not even our bladders are safe. It's as good a time as any to call it an era for both these toxic 100-year-old technologies, no? Let's move on.