Lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality associated with ambient air pollution and cigarette smoke: shape of the exposure-response relationships

Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Nov;119(11):1616-21. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1103639. Epub 2011 Jul 19.


Background: Lung cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality risks increase with smoking, secondhand smoke (SHS), and exposure to fine particulate matter < 2.5 μm in diameter (PM₂.₅) from ambient air pollution. Recent research indicates that the exposure-response relationship for CVD is nonlinear, with a steep increase in risk at low exposures and flattening out at higher exposures. Comparable estimates of the exposure-response relationship for lung cancer are required for disease burden estimates and related public health policy assessments.

Objectives: We compared exposure-response relationships of PM₂.₅ with lung cancer and cardiovascular mortality and considered the implications of the observed differences for efforts to estimate the disease burden of PM2.5.

Methods: Prospective cohort data for 1.2 million adults were collected by the American Cancer Society as part of the Cancer Prevention Study II. We estimated relative risks (RRs) for increments of cigarette smoking, adjusting for various individual risk factors. RRs were plotted against estimated daily dose of PM₂.₅ from smoking along with comparison estimates for ambient air pollution and SHS.

Results: For lung cancer mortality, excess risk rose nearly linearly, reaching maximum RRs > 40 among long-term heavy smokers. Excess risks for CVD mortality increased steeply at low exposure levels and leveled off at higher exposures, reaching RRs of approximately 2-3 for cigarette smoking.

Conclusions: The exposure-response relationship associated with PM₂.₅ is qualitatively different for lung cancer versus cardiovascular mortality. At low exposure levels, cardiovascular deaths are projected to account for most of the burden of disease, whereas at high levels of PM₂.₅, lung cancer becomes proportionately more important.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Air Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / chemically induced
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / mortality*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Lung Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Particulate Matter / toxicity*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / mortality*
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects*
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Air Pollutants
  • Particulate Matter
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution