U.S. environmental officials discourage the kind of study
. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #559 .
. ---August 14, 1997--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. CHILDHOOD CANCER AND POLLUTION .
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CHILDHOOD CANCER AND POLLUTION
A new peer-reviewed study in England shows that children have an
increased danger of getting cancer if they live within three to
five kilometers (2 to 3 miles) of certain kinds of industrial
facilities. The study, by E.G. Knox and E.A. Gilman, finds
that the danger is greatest within a few hundred yards of
pollution sources and tapers off with distance. The incidence of
childhood cancers per 100,000 children in England and the U.S.
has been rising steadily for at least 20 years.
The new study examined data for 22,458 children who died of
leukemia (cancer of the blood-forming cells) or of other cancers
during the years 1953 to 1980 in England. The study looked at
home address at time of birth and home address at time of death,
then measured the physical distance from these addresses to
nearby industrial facilities.
Excesses of leukemias and other cancers among children were found
near the following kinds of industries:
** oil refineries, major oil storage installations, railside oil
distribution terminals, and factories making bitumen (a British
term for asphalt, crude petroleum and tar).
** automobile factories, auto body construction factories, and
auto body repair shops;
** major users of petroleum products including paint sprayers,
fiber glass fabricators, paint and varnish makers, manufacturers
of solvents, plastics and detergents, and galvanizers (zinc metal
** users of kilns and furnaces, including steel mills, power
plants, cement manufacturers, brick makers, crematoria, and
foundries for iron and steel, aluminum, and zinc.
** airfields, railways, highways, and harbors.
This study was also interesting for what it did NOT find:
** Rubber manufacturers showed slight increases in childhood
cancers nearby, but tire manufacturing plants did not. Likewise,
brake manufacturing showed no excessive childhood cancers nearby.
** Despite the use of solvent-based cleaning, electroplating
plants showed no childhood cancer increases nearby.
** Twenty-two factories making halogenated hydrocarbons
(chlorinated and fluorinated) had no apparent effect but 32 other
solvent manufacturers showed cancer effects up to 5 kilometers (3
** Metal casting (aluminum and zinc), metal forming, and welding
probably account for the effects seen near automobile
manufacturing plants, the authors say. However, casting and
refining of lead showed no childhood cancer effects. The
manufacture of automobile batteries, on the other hand, exhibited
strong effects. The authors speculate that it may be the
manufacture of battery casings (plastics forming, and use of
solvents) that create the childhood cancer effect, rather than
the lead itself.
** Other industries that did not seem to be associated with
childhood cancers included agricultural fertilizer rail
terminals; TV transmitters; cake and biscuit bakers; dry cell
battery manufacturers; magnetic tape makers; nuclear power
plants; PVC manufacturers; and the makers of wood preservatives.
** Benzene manufacturing plants were not associated with nearby
clusters of childhood cancers. The known leukemia hazard from
benzene may have led to special containment measures.
The findings for leukemias and for other cancers were the same.
Among children who had changed addresses between birth and death,
the cancer hazard could only be seen near the birth address,
implying that exposure to pollutants shortly before or after
birth caused the cancers.
Knox and Gilman, the authors of this study, have spent several
years developing analytic techniques for identifying small-scale
cancer clusters, usually cancers occurring within 150 to 300
meters (roughly 150 to 300 yards) of each other. The authors
say they are sure their techniques can now identify cancer
clusters at the neighborhood level. "First, our recent analyses
have effectively dispelled caveats about the reality of short
range case clustering and the existence of geographically
localised hazards is not now in doubt. Proximity studies are no
longer concerned with this issue and can be directed solely at
asking what those hazards might be," they say.
This latest study takes these techniques the next step and links
the cancer clusters to nearby sources of pollution, particularly
those involving large quantities of petroleum.
The weakness of this latest study, the authors say, is that it
cannot rule out the possibility that there are excessively large
numbers of children living near industrialized facilities, which
could create the false impression of high cancer rates. The
authors examine this question as best they can, and they show
that, in general, there are few residences within short distances
(a few hundred yards) of major factories because associated
facilities (roads, parking lots, garages, etc.) compete for space
with residential buildings.
The authors conclude that childhood cancers cluster around two
general kinds of facilities:
** producers, refiners, distributors, and industrial users of
petroleum fuels and volatile petroleum products; and
** manufacturing processes using high temperature furnaces,
kilns, and combustion chambers.
Some operations, notably internal combustion engines and oil
fired furnaces, meet both criteria.
The authors of the study say there may be three mechanisms by
which childhood cancers are caused:
** Gases and volatile organic compounds reaching children or
their pregnant mothers directly;
** Parents' germ cells being harmed during occupational
exposures, giving rise to children who are predisposed to cancers;
** Occupational contamination carried home on clothing, skin, or
Of the three mechanisms, the authors say they believe direct
exposure of children or their pregnant mothers is the most likely.
The authors say their study may have missed many local sources of
petroleum exposure of children, such as domestic and commercial
heating systems, oil storage bunkers, oil delivery spills, small
machine shops, bus stations, school or hospital chimneys,
municipal incinerators, gasoline stations, etc.
Childhood cancers could be caused by at least 3 mechanisms:
** Pollutants damaging the inherited genetic material (DNA) in
** Pollutants damaging the immune system which would otherwise
prevent cancer cells from surviving;
** Pollutants damaging mechanisms of cell division. (Cancer is
uncontrolled cell division.)
These latest findings, that childhood cancers are clustered near
industrial facilities, contradict the official view of childhood
cancer, at least in the U.S. The National Cancer Institute (NCI)
wrote in 1993, "Time trends in childhood cancer are not likely to
be affected by environmental agents because very few are known
that cause cancer within the pediatric age-span, and exposures
have been rare or limited." And: "Clusters of childhood cancer
occur very often by chance and almost never because of
environmental agents." Nevertheless, the NCI does say that
children exposed to radiation (as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) can
develop cancers. Exposure to benzene could cause childhood
leukemia, says NCI, because benzene affects chromosomes the same
way radiation does. The children of mothers treated with
diethylstilbestrol (DES) --a drug given to women in the 1950s to
prevent miscarriage --can develop childhood cancers, NCI
NCI reports that the incidence (per 100,000 children) of many
childhood cancers have increased steadily during the period
1973-1990. All childhood cancers combined have increased at the
rate of 0.9% per year (0.9% per year among whites, and 1.0% per
year among African-Americans). Cancer of the brain and central
nervous system have increased at 1.8% per year. Leukemias have
increased at 1.8% per year. Non-Hodgkin's lymphomas have
increased at 1.4% per year. Kidney cancer has increased at 1%
per year. However, thanks to surgery, radiation treatments, and
chemotherapy, death rates for all these childhood cancers have
declined steadily since 1973 at an average rate of 2.9% per year
even as the incidence rates have increased.
U.S. environmental officials discourage the kind of study
reported here. Each year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) collects data on toxic releases as self-reported by
industrial polluters, thus creating the annual Toxics Release
Inventory, or TRI database, which is authorized by federal law.
However, EPA has never assigned any staff to check the quality of
the self-reported data, thus making any studies based on the TRI
data suspect. Furthermore, when John R. Stockwell, a physician
employed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
developed a technique for linking data from the TRI database with
disease rates near pollution sources in Chattanooga, Tennessee,
EPA officials immediately tried to fire Stockwell. (See REHW
#366, #392.) Because of citizen protests, Stockwell managed to
keep his job, but he has not undertaken any similar studies since
then, and neither has anyone else within EPA. EPA chief Carol
Browner has issued a memo specifically ordering EPA staff to
"stay away from linking human health effects and the TRI data."
Another EPA official who tried to link industrial toxic releases
to human health has also found himself in serious trouble. Brian
Holtzclaw, an environmental engineer employed by EPA but "on
loan" to the state of Kentucky, urged the study of massive toxic
releases from an Ashland Oil refinery to see if they correlated
with disease rates in neighboring communities. He tried to bring
in John Stockwell to study Ashland's toxic discharges, and he
himself released some pollution data to local citizens.
Holtzclaw was immediately terminated from his Kentucky projects
and reassigned to Atlanta, Georgia. Holtzclaw fought the
reassignment. Hundreds of environmental groups and individuals
all across the country have signed letters and petitions on
Holtzclaw's behalf. After a legal battle, EPA --without
admitting any wrongdoing --settled with Holtzclaw for $20,000 and
a written promise that he could continue to work on environmental
justice issues. However, Holtzclaw's court battle against the
U.S. Department of Labor and the state of Kentucky continues. He
wants his job back in Kentucky and he wants his court costs
The Stockwell and Holtzclaw cases send an unmistakable message
from EPA chief Carol Browner to all EPA employees: Beware. The
relationship of pollution to human disease is a forbidden topic
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 E.G. Knox and E.A. Gilman, "Hazard proximities of childhood
cancers in Great Britain from 1953-80," JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY
AND COMMUNITY HEALTH Vol. 51 (1997), pgs. 151-159.
 See E.G. Knox, "Spatial clustering of childhood cancers in
Great Britain," JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY AND COMMUNITY HEALTH Vol.
50, No. 3 (June 1996), pgs. 313-319. And: E.G. Knox, "Leukaemia
clusters in childhood: geographical analysis in Britain," JOURNAL
OF EPIDEMIOLOGY AND COMMUNITY HEALTH Vol. 48, No. 4 (August
1994), pgs. 369-376. And: E.G. Knox, "Leukaemia clusters in
Great Britain. 1. Space-Time interactions," JOURNAL OF
EPIDEMIOLOGY AND COMMUNITY HEALTH Vol. 46, No. 6 (December 1992),
pgs. 566-572. And: E.G. Knox, "Leukaemia clusters in Great
Britain. 2. Geographical concentrations," JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY
AND COMMUNITY HEALTH Vol. 46, No. 6 (December 1992), pgs.
573-576. And: E.A. Gilman, "Childhood Cancers: space-time
distribution in Britain," JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY AND COMMUNITY
HEALTH Vol. 49, No. 2 (April 1995), pgs. 158-163.
 Barry A. Miller, and others, editors, SEER CANCER STATISTICS
REVIEW 1973-1990 [NIH Publication No. 93-2789] (Bethesda,
Maryland, 1993), pgs. XXVII.1 to XXVII.15.
 Scott Learn, "Project director says EPA won't let doctor
participate," LEXINGTON [KENTUCKY] HERALD-LEADER March 20, 1994,
pg. A15. And see: Andrew Melnykovych, "EPA to Pay $20,000
settlement to employee," THE [LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY] COURIER
JOURNAL November 3, 1995, pg. 1. And see: Southern Organizing
Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC), "Hundreds of
Citizen Groups Call on Department of Labor to Uphold Rights of
Environmental Whistleblower," press release dated October 11,
1996; for further information, contact SOC at (502) 776-7874, or
(404) 755-2855, or Mr. Holtzclaw himself at (404) 562-8868.
Descriptor terms: oil industry; petroleum; cancer; childhood
cancers; leukemia; brain cancer; kidney cancer; studies; england;
e.g. knox; cancer clusters; automobile manufacture; automobile
repair; paint; fiber glass; solvents; plastics; detergents; metal
plating and finishing; boilers and industrial furnaces; bifs;
crematoria; iron; steel; zinc; aluminum; cement kilns; airports;
railroads harbors; rubber manufacturers; metal casting; welding;
automobile batteries; emf; benzene; pvc; high-temperature
combustion; diesel exhaust; internal combustion engines;
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