• Kristina Marusic
  • Nov 08, 23

106.  How to Reduce Childhood Cancer Risk Before and During Pregnancy

Even when chemicals are tested and found to be dangerous, they generally stay on the market — at least in the U.S. The World Health Organization has identified at least 100 manufactured chemicals that can cause cancer in humans, but only five have been removed from U.S. markets in the last 50 years. 

Rates of childhood cancer across the globe have been rising  since researchers started tracking the disease in the 1970s.

 

Today, one in 285 Americans are diagnosed with cancer before turning 20, and cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for American children. 

 

One likely contributor is a rapid increase in chemical manufacturing. In the last 100 years, more than 300,000 new manufactured chemicals have been invented. Many of them have improved our lives, but most new chemicals are never tested for safety, and fewer than 20% are evaluated for their potential to harm fetuses, infants, and children. 

 

Even when chemicals are tested/ found to be dangerous, they generally stay on the market — at least in the U.S. The World Health Organization has identified at least 100 manufactured chemicals that can cause cancer in humans, but only five have been removed from U.S. markets in the last 50 years. 

 

We need to do a better job of testing and regulating chemicals that could harm children. In the meantime, there are some simple steps that expectant parents can take to reduce the risk of childhood cancer.

Pollutants Linked to Childhood Cancer

There are three major categories of pollutants with robust scientific evidence linking exposure with common childhood cancers: Pesticides, paints and solvents, and traffic-related air pollution.

 

A 2021 meta-analysis looked at 55 studies from more than 30 countries and found that exposure to pesticides is clearly linked to higher risk of childhood leukemia. The link existed for exposures that happen in infancy and childhood, but was actually strongest for maternal exposures during pregnancy. Expectant parents can avoid exposure to pesticides by avoiding using them in their home or in their yards.  It’s also important to eat organic foods whenever possible.

 

The second is traffic-related air pollution. Several independently conducted meta-analyses have linked exposure to traffic-related air pollution with increased risk of childhood leukemia. Living near a major roadway or highway poses the greatest risk. If that can’t be avoided, filtering indoor air regularly can go a long way toward reducing harmful exposures. 

The third category is paints and solvents. Numerous meta-analyses have shown a link between exposure and childhood leukemia, particularly for maternal exposures both before and during pregnancy. Expectant parents can reduce exposures by wearing the best-available protective gear. Particularly if they’re regularly exposed to paints or solvents in their workplace. They can avoid using these products at home leading up to and during pregnancy. They may even stay out of their home while these products are used. Additionally they can  thoroughly ventilate  the house for as long as possible after their use.

 

Reducing Overall Exposure to Potentially Harmful Chemicals

Once children are in the house, there are other simple steps to reduce their overall exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. These include choosing a home water filter that’s effective at removing chemicals that raise cancer risk, not heating food in plastic, switching to nontoxic cosmetics, personal care, and cleaning products, and filtering indoor air regularly.

 

KRISTINA MARUSIC is an award-winning journalist at Environmental Health Sciences who covers environmental health and justice at EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. Her research into cancer-causing chemicals and exposures lead to her new book, A New War on Cancer: The Unlikely Heroes Revolutionizing Prevention (Island Press / May 11, 2023 / $28). Kristina holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of San Francisco, and her personal essays and reporting have been published by outlets including CNN, Slate, Vice, Women’s Health, The Washington Post, MTV News, The Advocate, and Bustle, among others.