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Daily News Blog

02
Nov

Childhood Leukemia Linked to Pesticides Used in Vineyards

(Beyond Pesticides, November 1, 2023) A study published in Environmental Health Perspective finds the risk of acute childhood leukemia (AL), specifically acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), slightly increases with exposure to pesticides (i.e., insecticides and herbicides) from uses on vines, a crop subject to intensive pesticide use. Within 1 kilometer [km] of vineyards, the risk of ALL among children increases in areas with a higher density of vines. Although medical advancements in disease survival are more common nowadays, childhood AL remains the secondary cause of child mortality following physical injury. Furthermore, childhood leukemia survivors can suffer from chronic or long-term health complications that may be life-threatening.

The etiology or cause of childhood AL involves the interaction of multiple components, including lifestyle and genetics; emerging evidence indicates that environmental contaminants (e.g., pesticides, air pollution, solvents, diet, etc.) play a role in disease. Pesticide contamination is widespread in all ecosystems, and chemical compounds can accumulate in human tissues, resulting in chronic health effects. Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of pesticide exposure as their developing bodies cannot adequately combat exposure effects. Already, studies find low levels of pesticide exposure during pregnancy or childhood cause adverse health effects, from metabolic disorders to mental and physical disabilities. Moreover, several studies demonstrate an association between environmental or occupational pesticide exposure and the risk of childhood cancer, specifically focusing on leukemia.

Acute leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer, accounting for one of three cancer cases in children ages 0 to 14. Although the disease is rare, incidents have been steadily increasing among adolescents over the last 30 years. Therefore, studies like these highlight the importance of understanding how pesticide use can increase the risk of latent diseases (e.g., cancers) among vulnerable populations, such as children/infants/fetuses.

Using national registry-based GEOCAP study data, researchers evaluate acute leukemia cases of children under 15 years who received the diagnosis between 2006 and 2013. Land use maps provided geographical information indicating the proximity of children living near vineyards (200 meters (m), 500m, 1000m) and the density of vines within the 1000m area. To estimate the odds ratios for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and myeloid (AML) subtypes, the study employed a logistic regression model, with sensitivity analyses considering geocoding uncertainty, the density of other crops, and potential demographic and environmental confounders. Of the children with AL, about 10 percent were viable for the study, residing within 1000m of vineyards. Although proximity to vines has little association with AL, the density of vines within the area is associated with ALL. Thus, the results suggest that pesticide use is more prevalent among dense areas of vines regardless of proximity to vines. For instance, if a child lives 200m from vines in a less vine-dense area, they will experience less risk of AL compared to a child living 1000m from vines in a heavily vine-dense area. 

Environmental contaminants like pesticides are ubiquitous in the environment, with 90 percent of Americans having at least one pesticide compound in their body. This bodily contamination affects human health, especially during vulnerable life stages like childhood, puberty, pregnancy, and old age. Many studies indicate prenatal and early-life exposure to environmental toxicants increases disease susceptibility. The scientific connection between pesticides and associated cancer risks is nothing new. Several studies link pesticide use and residues to various cancers, with 66 percent related to environmental factors, especially in occupations of high chemical use. In addition to the robust link between agricultural practices and pesticide-related illnesses, over 63 percent of commonly used lawn pesticides and 70 percent of commonly used school pesticides have links to cancer. U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute also finds many cancer-causing substances are endocrine disruptors. Globally, cancer is one of the leading causes of death, with over 8 million people succumbing to the disease every year. The International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) predicts new cancer cases to rise 67.4% by 2030.

This study is one of the few nationwide GIS-based studies assessing childhood leukemia risk among individuals living near grape vines used for viticulture, addressing the question of AL risk among children living close to viticultural areas in France for the first time. However, previous studies find that maternal exposure to pesticides during gestation results in a more elevated leukemia risk for children than childhood (postnatal) exposure. Whether pesticide exposure is occupational or mixed, parental exposure to pesticides has the highest association with AL risk, including paternal (father) exposure. Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy increases the risk of developing AL and ALL. Infant leukemia incidents depend on maternal pesticide exposure during pregnancy, with a higher risk for acute lymphoblastic and the highest risk for infant acute myeloid leukemia.

Although pesticide products are subject to an extensive toxicological assessment before registration, current regulatory guideline studies fail to assess genotoxicity and carcinogenicity in utero that induces infant leukemia incidents. For instance, studies have long demonstrated that childhood and in-utero exposure to the U.S.-banned insecticide DDT increases the risk of developing breast cancer later in life. Moreover, a 2021 study finds previous maternal exposure to the chemical compound during pregnancy can increase the risk of breast cancer and cardiometabolic disorders (e.g., heart disease, obesity, diabetes) up to three successive generations. Even household cleaners, many of which are pesticides, can increase nephroblastoma (kidney cancer) and brain tumor risk in children. Children are more susceptible to the toxic effect of pesticide exposure as their endocrine and metabolic systems cannot adequately detoxify and excrete chemical compounds. Moreover, pesticides can hinder childhood development, making children more vulnerable to acute health effects like asthma/respiratory issues, gut dysbiosis, cardiovascular diseases, and other physical and mental birth abnormalities. Therefore, it is essential to understand how external stimuli—like environmental pollution from pesticides—can drive cancer development to avoid exposure and lessen potential cancer risks.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. Hence, studies concerning pesticides and cancer help future epidemiologic research understand the underlying mechanisms that cause the disease. There is a severe deficiency in understanding the etiology of pesticide-induced diseases, including predictable lag time between chemical exposure, health impacts, and epidemiologic data. Therefore, advocates maintain that lawmakers and regulators should take a more precautionary approach before introducing these chemicals into the environment. With far too many diseases in the U.S. associated with pesticide exposure, eliminating pesticide use is critical to safeguarding public health and addressing cost burdens for local communities. Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database (PIDD) is a vital resource for additional scientific literature that documents elevated cancer rates and other chronic diseases and illnesses among people exposed to pesticides. This database supports the clear need for strategic action to shift away from pesticide dependency. For more information on pesticide exposure’s multiple harms, see PIDD pages on leukemia and other cancers, birth/fetal defects, endocrine disruption, and other diseases.

One way to reduce human and environmental contamination from pesticides is by buying, growing, and supporting organic land management. Organic agriculture has many health and environmental benefits, which curtail the need for chemical-intensive agricultural practices. Numerous studies find that pesticide metabolites in urine drop considerably when switching to an all-organic diet. Furthermore, given the wide availability of non-pesticidal alternative strategies, families and agricultural industry workers can apply these methods to promote a safe and healthy environment, especially among chemically vulnerable individuals. For more information on how organic is the right choice for consumers and the farmworkers that grow our food, see the Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Environmental Health Perspective 

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