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Last Edited: 6/15/2004

Childhood Cancer

Cancer is the disease that causes most deaths in children. Cancers that occur in children under 15 years of age include leukemia, lymphoma, bone cancers, liver cancers, soft-tissue sarcomas, brain and nervous system cancers as well as others. They are distinctly different from cancers that occur in adults. Among the 12 major types of childhood cancers, leukemias (blood cell cancers) and brain/central nervous system tumors account for over one-half of the new cases. About one-third of childhood cancers are leukemias, most commonly, acute lymphocytic leukemia. The most common solid tumors in children are brain tumors (e.g., gliomas and medulloblastomas), while other solid tumors (e.g., neuroblastomas, Wilms’ tumors and rhabdomyosarcomas) are less common. The National Cancer Institute website provides excellent information on childhood cancers including information about detection, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

Despite great advances in treatment and improvements in survival, childhood cancer incidence has not diminished with time. While a few factors, such as Down syndrome, specific genetic problems and radiation exposure, explain a small percentage of childhood cancer cases, environmental exposures have long been suspected as additional causes. Unfortunately, this has been difficult to evaluate, partly because cancer in children is so rare and partly because it is so difficult to identify children’s past exposures to environmental risk factors. In addition, each type of childhood cancer develops differently and each may have a wide variety of potential causes. Because of public concern that environmental factors may contribute to the development of childhood cancer, this arena has become one that epidemiologists are particularly interested in studying. Many child health advocates, as well as many researchers in the field of childhood cancer, believe that exposures to pesticides, hydrocarbons, electromagnetic fields and ionizing radiation should be closely examined for their potential link to childhood cancer.

For several years, the Environmental Health Investigations Branch (EHIB) has been actively investigating apparent childhood cancer excesses in small areas (sometimes called "cancer clusters") within California. The Branch has conducted a broad array of studies looking at potential sources of contamination thought to be related to cancer incidence. These have included looking for toxic contamination of water, air and soil. EHIB has also evaluated childhood cancer excesses in a four-county area of the state’s Central Valley. Additionally, EHIB has initiated a number of childhood cancer studies aimed at more broadly addressing concerns about environmental causes of cancer.

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