Is ‘modern life’ to blame for a rise in cancer among children?

    5 September 2016

    The number of young people diagnosed with cancer has risen by 40 per cent since 1998, according to a statistical analysis by the charity Children with Cancer UK. In people between the ages of 15 and 24, the reported figure is 60 per cent.

    However, the analysis has been contested (see our expert analysis below), as it does not take into account improvements in detecting cancer.

    According to government figures, there are now 1,300 more cancer cases a year than there were in 1998. The charity’s researchers argued that the ‘majority’ of the rise was down to increases in air pollution, pesticide use, radiation levels and poor diets.

    Dr Denis Henshaw, the scientific adviser for Children with Cancer UK, said: ‘When you look at cancers such as childhood leukaemia there is no doubt that environmental factors are playing a big role. We were shocked to see the figures, and it’s modern lifestyle I’m afraid.

    ‘Many items on the list of environmental causes are now known to be carcinogenic, such as air pollution and pesticides and solvents. There has been good research to suggest a mother’s diet can damage DNA in cord blood. Light at night we know is very disruptive for the body, which is why shift workers have such bad health.

    ‘Burnt barbecues, the electric fields of power lines, the electricity supply in your home. Hairdryers. It’s all of these things coming together, and it seems to be teenagers and young people that are most affected.

    ‘What’s worrying is it is very hard to avoid a lot of these things. How can you avoid air pollution? It sometimes feels like we are fighting a losing battle.’

    Instant analysis
    First, the figures. The number of new childhood cancer cases rose from a 1998 baseline of 10 per 100,000 population to 16 cases per 100,000. This increase is hardly surprising when distributed across the entire population of the UK.

    However, the greatest increase was seen between the ages of 15-24. These are not children. According to the Office for National Statistics, childhood is from birth to 15 years old. The increase in cancer cases in the 18-24 age group (an increase of 55 per cent since the 1970s) has already been noted, coinciding with both changing environmental factors and a vastly improved ability to detect cancer. In the interests of accuracy conflating the two age groups should not have occurred in this way.

    Assuming that these statistics truly indicate an increase in childhood cancer cases, what is driving it?

    The problem, of course, is correlation versus causation. While there may be strong correlative evidence that the increased use of pesticides, plastics, industrial chemicals, technology, perversely chemotherapy and radiotherapy (causing secondary cancers in some cases) and even increased diagnostic imaging causes cancer, it is much more difficult to state definitively when any of these factors actually cause cancer, even if their carcinogenic potential seems clear in lab experiments. To establish causation can take years, as the studies on smoking demonstrated.

    Cancer, according to the top researchers in the field, is both a metabolic and genetic disease. Given the massive changes that have occurred in the world over the last 40 years, from the manipulation of our food supply with the addition of preservatives, chemicals and additives that are known to cause metabolic change, to the persistence of non-biodegradable industrial products in our environment, coupled with exposure to known carcinogens in war zones, industrial accidents, nuclear accidents and the like, it is no surprise that more cases are recognised.

    However, our knowledge of cancer genetics and behaviour has increased exponentially, our ability to diagnose it at its early stages has never been greater and our ability to cure patients for them to live long enough to develop a recurrence or new cancer marked. This, then, raises the question: are we seeing more cases because we are diagnosing them earlier, or because there is a true increase based on environmental and metabolic factors? One can argue that the world has been a veritable ‘cancer zone’ over the last 40 years, yet if this truly was the case, might we not have expected a greater increase?