Car Pollution Linked To Childhood Cancers

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Even in utero, children may be affected by exposure to certain compounds in car exhaust.

Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., scientists said that mothers who had higher exposure while pregnant to traffic pollution coming from car and truck emissions were more likely to have children who developed cancers like acute lymphoblastic leukemia and a type of eye cancer.

The researchers studied 3,950 children born between 1998 and 2007 who were part of the California cancer registry. They estimated the amount of traffic within a 1,500 meter radius of each child’s home during every trimester of the mothers’ pregnancy and during the child’s first year of life, and, based on factors like traffic volume, emission rates, road geometry and weather, calculated the exposure to car pollutants, beginning in utero and through the baby’s first year.

(MORE: Exposure to Air Pollution in Pregnancy May Boost Chances of Obesity in Kids)

Each increase of 53 parts per billion of carbon monoxide pollution raised the risk of a child developing certain cancers, study author Julia Heck, in the department of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles’ Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center told Bloomberg News. Each increase upped the risk of developing retinoblastoma, an eye cancer, by 14% and cancer in organs such as testicles and ovaries by 17%.

The researchers were not able to determine when during development exposure to pollution generated the most harm, but they did find that pollution was “highly correlated” with increased cancer risk across each trimester and during a child’s first year of life.

“Much less is known about exposure to pollution and childhood cancer than adult cancers,” said Heck in a statement. “Our innovation in this study was looking at other more rare types of childhood cancer, such as retinoblastoma, and their possible connection to traffic-related air pollution.”

(MOREMom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems)

Although the study is one of the first to link traffic air pollution to childhood cancers, it’s not the first to associate pollution with cancer or with childhood disorders. One study last April linked pollution exposure during pregnancy to obesity in children later on. That study looked at exposure levels to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust, which can disrupt hormones that regulate growth and development, and found kids born to mothers with the highest PAH levels during their third trimester had a 79% greater risk of becoming obese, compared with children whose moms had the lowest levels. By the time the kids turned 7, their risk was more than 2.25 times higher.

Previous studies have also tied pollution exposure to behavioral problems in children, and even hinted at a possible connection to the development of autism.

With the latest findings, researchers have more reason to investigate the potential risks of pollution from cars on children’s health. The new findings are preliminary, but they highlight the potentially lasting effects that pollutants can have on youngsters. Avoiding air pollution, however isn’t always possible, especially for those living in urban areas, but it is possible to cut back on other factors that can contribute to childhood cancers, such as smoking, to limit the effects that poor air quality during pregnancy can have on developing fetuses. Every effort to understand and protect babies, beginning in utero, from potential cancer-causing compounds can help.

(MORE: Autism and Air Pollution: The Link Grows Stronger)