Environmental Issues > Health Main Page > All Health Documents

Children, Cancer & The Environment
Main Page
Common Causes
The Most Common Cancers
Protecting Your Children
Q&A

It's always heartbreaking when cancer strikes a child. Yet medicine has made huge strides in treating this disease, and many young victims now survive.

But can we prevent childhood cancer from occurring in the first place? In the future, the answer may sometimes be yes. That's because scientists now believe that many childhood cancers are caused by environmental agents -- that is, by causes outside the body. Environmental factors, unlike such factors as heredity, can theoretically be controlled. So, as scientists learn more about the environmental causes of cancer, parents have more opportunities to shield their children. Of course, parents can't protect their children from every possible hazard. So NRDC is working to decrease and eliminate some of the chemicals that may contribute to childhood cancer.

Read on to learn more about some of the suspected environmental causes of childhood cancer and how you can reduce the risks to your own children. For more information on childhood cancer in general -- rates, common types and effects -- check out the Q & A.


Linking Environmental Factors with Childhood Cancer

In some cases, researchers have found direct links between environmental agents and cancer in children. For instance, there is proof that X-rays and certain chemicals used for chemotherapy can cause leukemia, and that exposure to the synthetic hormone DES (diethylstilbestrol) before birth can cause vaginal cancers in young women.

More often, scientists have indirect evidence. When it comes to disease, there are few "smoking guns" -- unambiguous reasons explaining why people get sick. Instead, there are correlations, or associations, between certain factors and a given disease. In the case of childhood cancer, studies increasingly show correlations between certain environmental agents and rates of the illness. Today, most scientists believe that environmental factors cause or contribute to many cancers in children. The environmental agents linked to these cancers include pesticides, radiation, solvents, electromagnetic fields, paints, chemicals associated with the use of vehicles, metals and secondhand tobacco smoke.

Additional evidence comes from variations in rates of common childhood cancers in different parts of the world, which also suggest that environmental factors contribute to the disease. Another strong indication comes from studies of childhood cancer in identical twins, who have identical genetic make-ups. If these cancers were primarily caused by genetics, almost any time one identical twin got cancer, we'd expect to see it in the other twin as well. But that only sometimes occurs. It's likely, therefore, that heredity is not the major factor behind most of these cancers. Instead, environmental factors probably make one twin sick.

Many scientists believe, however, that environmental agents and genetic factors may turn out to be intertwined. It may be that some children inherit a predisposition to cancer, which environmental exposures later activate. Or, hereditary factors may make it hard for some children to withstand certain environmental exposures.


Critical Periods for Environmental Exposures

Many people assume that the vulnerability to cancer begins only at birth, but that's not true. A great deal of evidence indicates that childhood cancers may originate earlier -- even before children are conceived. In fact, there are three periods when environmental agents can cause cancer in children: before conception, during pregnancy and after birth.

How can environmental exposures affect children even before they're born? By affecting their parents' sperm or eggs. For instance, some studies have found that fathers who are exposed on the job to such chemicals as solvents or pesticides are more likely to have children who develop cancer. The exposure may affect the sperm in a way that predisposes the children to cancer later in life.

During pregnancy, many hazardous chemicals easily cross the placenta. The fetus is very vulnerable to these exposures. Sometimes, they cause problems that are immediately obvious, such as miscarriages or birth defects. At other times, however, the health effects -- including many childhood cancers -- don't show up until later in childhood.

After birth, of course, children remain susceptible to environmental exposures, which they may now receive directly. In fact, they are particularly vulnerable to these direct exposures. For one thing, children's immature bodies cannot yet detoxify and eliminate many contaminants. In addition, compared with adults, their small bodies take in proportionally greater volumes of air, food and liquid. And children often have greater contact with environmental contaminants because of their behavior: they spend more time on the floor, for instance, and put many things in their mouths.


Next: The Most Common Causes of Childhood Cancer

last revised 4/10/2002

All Tags [ View Popular Tags ]:
toxics
2
4-D
4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid
agriculture
air fresheners
air pollution
air pollution health impacts
air quality
alabama
alar
antibacterial
antibiotic resistance
antibiotics
arsenic
asbestos
asthma
atrazine
beaches
bees
birth defects
bottom trawling
BPA
bush administration
California
cancer
chemicals
children
children's health
china
chlor-alkali plants
cigarette smoke
Clean Air Act
Clean Water Act
climate and health
climate and health risks
climate change
coal
coal-fired power plants
conditional registration
consequences
conservation and restoration
consumer products
costs of climate change
DanielleDroitsch
dengue
DianeBailey
diesel buses
diesel exhaust
disease
disease clusters
drilling
drinking water
drought
dust
endocrine disruptors
energy efficiency
environmental threats
EPA
exposure to chemicals
extreme weather
farming
farms
farmworkers
fashion
FDA
fda fails to protect
fda reform
Flame Retardants
flammability standards
flood
floods
florida
food
formaldehyde
fracking
global warming
global warming and health
global warming emissions
global warming legislation
groundwater
growing green awards
gulf of mexico
gulfspill
habitat protection
Harmful Algal Blooms
health effects
health effects of pollution
health impacts
heat waves
herbicides
Hexane
Hexavalent Chromium
hog farms
hormone-disrupting chemicals
human health
Hurricane Katrina
hurricanes
India
infectious diseases
integrated pest management
interviews
kids health
Kids' Health
KimKnowlton
latinos
lawn care
lead
lindane
livestock
livestock farms
louisiana
manure
maps
melting ice and glaciers
mercury
Methylene Chloride
MiriamRotkinEllman
mississippi
mold
nanotechnologies
nanotechnology
natural gas
nitrogen oxides
oil
oil drilling
oil spill
oil spills
organic
organic food
overfishing
ozone
ozone smog pollution
particulate pollution
PCBs
perchlorate
pesticide
pesticide alternatives
pesticides
pet products
PeteAltman
pharmaceuticals
photos
phthalates
pig farms
pollen
polluted runoff
pollution
poultry
power plants
public health
radon
record-high temperatures
renewable energy
respiratory illness
river flooding
rivers
safeguards
SB 147
SB 695
SB 772
schools
scientific research
seafood
sea-level rise
sewage
smog
smoke
soot
species protection
storms
sulfur dioxide
superbugs
TanjaSrebotnjak
tar sands
TB 117
TCE
TCEP
TDCP
tennessee
texas
textiles
toxic
toxic air pollution
toxic chemical risk assessments
toxic chemicals
toxic waste
toxics
Tricholoroethylene
triclosan
tsca
vehicles
Vinyl Chloride
Washington DC
water
water pollution
Water Pollution
water quality
weather
wetlands
what you can do
wildfires
wildlife
workers' health

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: A Long Cool Drink

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Related Stories

Simple Steps
A healthier you. A healthier home. A healthier Earth -- one step at a time.
Is Organic Food Worth It?
The short answer is yes -- get the lowdown from This Green Life.
Pet Products May Harm Both Pets and Humans
Poisons in many pet pesticide products are not safe for pets or humans.
Mercury Contamination
Share | |
Find NRDC on
YouTube