Moving from a quiet to busy street raises risk of brain cancer

Moving from a quiet to busy street raises risk of brain cancer by 10% due to air pollution, study finds

  • Scientists have delved into the effects of ultra-fine particles – tiny pollutants 
  • Data showed a clear link between high exposure to UFPs and brain tumours
  • The study analysed medical records of 2million adults between 1991 and 2016 

Moving from a quiet street to a busy one could raise your risk of developing a brain tumour, a study has suggested.

Scientists have delved into the effects of ultra-fine particles, tiny pollutants mainly emitted by road traffic and burning coal.

Data showed the risk of getting a brain tumour jumped by 10 per cent for exposure to an extra 10,000/cm3 of UFPs each day.

McGill University researchers calculated this would lead to one new case every three years per 100,000 people.

They said the 10,000/cm3 spike in daily UFP exposure was the equivalent of moving house from a quiet stress to a congested one.

Scientists have delved into the effects of ultra-fine particles, tiny pollutants mainly emitted by road traffic and burning coal

Results also showed daily exposure to 50,000/cm3 raised the risk by 50 per cent against those exposed to 15,000/cm3.

Daily UFP ranges varied from 6,000/cm3 to 97,000/cm3 in both cities and surrounding areas they looked at – Montreal and Toronto.

Some studies have shown primary schools in heavily polluted parts of the UK regularly exceed 150,000.cm3.

Lead author Dr Scott Weichenthal said: ‘I wouldn’t expect the nanoparticles to be any less harmful anywhere else.’


A benign brain tumour is a mass of non-cancerous cells that grows relatively slowly.

Non-cancerous brain tumours tend to stay in one place and do not spread.

If the tumour can be completely removed in one surgery, it will not usually return.

If not, there is a risk it can grow back. 

Although brain tumours grow slowly, there is limited space inside the skull and the brain occupies most of it. 

Overtime, the mass can grow into the spinal cord or press on surrounding nerves.

Treatment may not be necessary if the tumour is growing at a controlled pace.

Surgery can also damage the nerves that surround the tumour, as well as putting patients at risk of stroke and swelling when the mass is removed.

Controlled doses of radiation, such as gamma knife treatment, can target a hard-to-reach tumour, without harming surrounding tissue. 

The study, published in the journal Epidemiology, analysed medical records of almost 2million adults between 1991 and 2016.

It compared daily UFP ranges from a three-year average. Other risk factors, such as smoking, were taken into account.

Pollution experts described the finding – just the latest in a long-line of pollution studies – as being ‘important’.

Professor Barbara Maher, of the University of Lancaster, believes it is plausible that the tiny pollutants cause brain cancer.

However, the study itself did not prove exposure to the tiny pollutants can cause brain cancer. Dr Weichenthal called for more research.

He told The Guardian: ‘We don’t know a lot about the causes of brain tumours, so any environmental factors we can identify are helpful.’

Dr David Jenkinson, chief scientific officer for The Brain Tumour Charity, said: ‘Very little is understood about the causes of brain cancer – in the overwhelming majority of cases it appears to strike indiscriminately regardless of age, sex or lifestyle.

‘We therefore welcome any research which looks at the relationship between external factors and the incidence of brain cancer, with a view to improving understanding and potentially identifying steps that could be taken to reduce the number of lives lost to the disease around the world.

‘We agree with the authors of this study that more research is needed into whether exposure to high levels of ultra-fine particles found in air pollution may be connected with an increase in the small risk of any one individual developing brain cancer.’

More than 9,000 people are diagnosed with primary brain tumours in the UK. The figure is closer to the 20,000 mark in the US.

Around half of all tumours – which cause symptoms such as seizures, headaches and nausea – are cancerous, figures show.

Statistics also suggested around a fifth of patients diagnosed with brain cancer will survive for at least five years.

Outdoor air pollution is estimated to kill 4.2million people every year, according to The World Health Organization.

It has been linked to almost every medical condition, from other types of cancer to dementia and mental health problems.

The UK is notoriously bad at controlling air pollution, with the Government repeatedly being hauled into court over the past few years.


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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