Young Scientists at Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) to Discover Association Between Climate Change and Lung Cancer

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Young Scientists at Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) to Discover Association Between Climate Change and Lung Cancer

December 06
23:49 2022
Zhenchun Yang is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University Global Health Institute (DGHI). Dr. Yang’s current research focus is air pollution monitoring and modeling.

According to CDC, the health of humans is profoundly affected by climate change and other natural and anthropogenic health stressors. Some already-present health risks will worsen, while new ones will emerge.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States (US), accounting for 21.4% of all cancer deaths nationwide. And while smoking/tobacco use is the main risk factor for lung cancer (accounting for 60% to 90% of cases), many people who have never smoked are still diagnosed with lung cancer.

Exposure to radon—a radioactive gas—is an established risk factor for lung cancer, accounting for up to 15% of cases. Alarmingly, radon is present in residential environments in the US. Prior studies confirmed that even lower-level residential radon exposure contributes to lung cancer risk, and children who are exposed have two times the risk of developing lung cancer compared to adults with equivalent levels of exposure. Rates of non-smoking associated lung cancer have almost doubled in recent years (increasing from 8% in 1990-1995 to 15% in 2011-2013), highlighting the urgent need to better characterize the impact of radon exposure on lung cancer risk.

Young scientists at the Global Health Institute of Duke University initiated a project to examine the link between radon exposure and lung cancer in North Carolinians (NC). Through the lenses of climate change and the social determinants of health, they will be quantifying radon exposure and investigating the relationship between exposure and lung cancer risk (SDOH; eg., education, residential segregation, access to care, racial disparities in outcomes).

This study is crucial considering that rising temperatures encourage the transmission of radon from the soil to indoor environments, and there are well-established disparities in lung cancer outcomes nationally and NC associated with SDOH and race.

“Our research will answer two major questions.” Introduced Zhenchun Yang, DGHI researcher and key member of this project, “How much of an effect climate change will have on radon exposure in North Carolina, both as a whole and in terms of race and state of health? What are the effects of radon exposure on lung cancer for Tar Heels, presently and into the year 2050? We hope to inform the public health strategy to take solid measures to mitigate the radon risk.”

This research was the recipient of a $200,000 grant from Duke’s Young Scientist Support Program. In total, Duke University has awarded $1 million to support young scientists at the university to independently lead and conduct scientific research.

Dr. Zhenchun Yang, the key leader of this program, received his Ph.D. from Imperial College in the UK before moving to Durham, North Carolina, to continue his research in the field of environmental health and air pollution monitoring and modeling. With an unbridled passion for demystifying the intricacies of measuring environmental exposure stems from his vision of a pollution-free world, and a desire to aid global efforts to reduce the increasing toll of pollution on public health, he is committed to developing more effective means of countering air pollution and taming the rapidly-advancing climate change.

Dr. Yang is committed to discovering the links between real-world exposure indicators and health outcomes and imparts that innovative solutions can be found to challenges in urban environments, including but not limited to air pollution, loss of greenness, and excessive night light exposure.

More information about Dr. Zhenchun Yang is available on his official website.

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