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Chemicals in Food Raise Children’s Cancer Toll

Samuel S. Epstein, M.S. and Ralph W. Moss
The New York Times letters, July 16, 1991

“Study Finds Mysterious Rise in Childhood Cancer Rates” (news article, June 26) understates the problems and overstates the mystery. Scientists, it says , are “just now learning of the latest statistics” that show a 4 percent increase in childhood cancer from 1973 to 1988. Last year, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reported a 28 percent increase in the incidence of childhood cancer from 1950 to 1987.

It is also stated that scientists have “few clues to the reasons for the jump.” Yet, more than 20 studies in the United States and elsewhere have demonstrated clear associations between childhood cancers and exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. The three most common childhood malignancies, kidney and brain cancers and acute leukemia, are often related to occupational exposure of fathers and mothers. Such exposure includes organic solvents, hydrocarbons, paints, dyes and pigments. Children of mechanics and mining and aircraft workers are also at risk.

You gloss over the substantial association between childhood cancer and exposure to pesticides. Clusters of acute leukemia are found in agricultural counties with heavy pesticide use, particularly for cotton production. Additionally, brain tumors have been associated with home termite treatment. Of 34 pesticides repeatedly applied commercially to lawns, at up to five times agricultural rates, ten are well recognized carcinogens.

As documented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), residues of numerous carcinogenic pesticides are commonly found in most fruits and vegetables. Additionally, milk and other dairy products are often laden with carcinogenic pesticides and antibiotics. Factory farm meat, particularly liver, veal, frankfurters and hamburgers, are also contaminated with carcinogenic pesticides, besides growth-stimulating sex hormones and other feed additives.

The Bush Administration has flung open the floodgates to carcinogens in our food. With active support of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has in effect revoked the 1958 Delaney law, which banned intentional contamination of food with any level of carcinogen.

Instead, the EPA now allows residues of any carcinogenic pesticide in any food at levels posing allegedly “acceptable” or “negligible risk,” as determined by manipulated numbers. In this, it has surprisingly been joined by Representative Henry A. Waxman of California and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. However, even the understated EPA estimates show risks of up to 60,000 excess annual cancers when applied to the numerous pesticides contaminating a plateful of food.

The Delaney law is crucial in protecting children from carcinogens in food. The fetus, infants and young children are much more susceptible to carcinogens than adults. Reasons for this include children’s rapid rate of growth and cell division, immaturity of detoxifying systems and their proportionately greater food consumption. This hyper susceptibility results not only in increased rates of childhood cancer, but also in delayed cancers in adult life. Illustrative are the rare vaginal cancers in young women whose pregnant mothers were treated with the carcinogen DES.

Only a sharp phase-out and ultimately a ban on the manufacture, use and disposal of carcinogenic chemicals, and their replacement with non-carcinogenic alternatives and technologies, is likely to reverse the burgeoning toll of childhood cancers. Such action is also likely to reverse the cancer epidemic now striking one in three and killing one in four Americans. The highly politicized Federal agencies and a lethargic, confused Congress are unlikely to act without any effective grassroots citizen action.

Samuel Epstein M. D. is professor of occupational and environmental medicine, University of Illinois, Chicago.
Ralph W. Moss is the author of “The Cancer Industry.”


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