Published on 14 Nov 2022

What makes air carcinogenic

From analysing levels of fine particulates in the air, a study by NTU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong has uncovered a link between air pollution and lung cancer.

Assoc Prof Steve Yim and Prof Joseph Sung

Often detected at a late stage, lung cancer is a leading cause of death around the world. While some lung cancers are caused by smoking, the exact causes of lung adenocarcinoma, the most common type of lung cancer, remain elusive.

Now, a collaborative study by NTU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong has uncovered a link between increasing air pollution and rising rates of lung adenocarcinoma.

The researchers analysed lung cancer trends from 1990 to 2012 using World Health Organisation data. To investigate air pollution trends, they analysed levels of fine particulates, including black carbon and sulfate, from air quality data provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US.

From their calculations, the researchers found that an increase in 0.1 micrograms per cubic metre of black carbon, also known as soot, in the Earth’s atmosphere, is associated with a 12% increase in lung adenocarcinoma incidence globally.

“We were able to determine that the global increase of lung adenocarcinoma is likely associated with air pollution. Our research points to the importance of environmental factors in the causation of specific types of lung cancer,” says Prof Joseph Sung, NTU’s Senior Vice President (Health and Life Sciences) and Dean, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, who led the study.

“The findings pinpoint the necessity and urgency to reduce air pollutant emissions, especially black carbon,” adds first author Assoc Prof Steve Yim of NTU’s Asian School of the Environment and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.


The article “Rise and fall of lung cancers in relation to tobacco smoking and air pollution: A global trend analysis from 1990 to 2012” can be found in Environmental Research (2021), DOI: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2021.118835.

The article appeared first in NTU's research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #20, June 2022).