We’re missing a critical opportunity to prevent childhood cancer 

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My sister was diagnosed as having thyroid cancer at the age of 25. I was living in England and teaching English at the age of 27. I moved back home when she was diagnosed to assist her during her treatment and surgery. Cancer is increasing among young people and millennials. Since 1970, when health officials started collecting data, the charts that track cancer among children and young adults have been uniformly monotonous, with diagonal lines climbing steadily upward. In the U.S. rates of childhood brain cancer and childhood leukemia have increased by 33 percent between 1975-2019. One in two hundred and eighty-five Americans is diagnosed with cancer by the time they reach their 20th year. The leading cause of disease-related death in American children is cancer. These increases are far too rapid to be the result of genetic changes that take centuries, not just decades. They are not the result of improved diagnostic tools either: the tools used to diagnose childhood leukemia have remained unchanged since the 1970s. The increase in childhood cancer cannot be explained by behavioral choices, such as drinking and smoking. This is a rapid, real increase in childhood cancer rates. If the cause is not genetics or behavior, then it could be something in our environment. In the same time period, one aspect of our environment has significantly changed: The number of manufactured chemical products we are exposed to daily. In the last century, over 300,000 manufactured chemicals were invented. Many of these chemicals have made our lives better: disinfectants provide safe drinking water for millions and reduce the number of deaths caused by dysentery. We also know that chemicals manufactured can be harmful. Agent Orange has had devastating effects on multiple generations. Before being phased out, chlorofluorocarbons almost destroyed the ozone.

Most chemicals are not tested for safety and less than 20% are assessed for the potential harm they could cause to fetuses or infants. Even when tested and proven to be harmful, chemicals remain on the market – at least in the U.S. Only five chemicals have been taken off U.S. shelves in the past 50 years, despite at least 100 chemicals being identified by the World Health Organization as potentially cancerous. Chemicals can enter our bodies via air, food, water, and our skin. Nearly every human being on Earth has a few hundred chemicals in their bodies, including children and infants. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptions or carcinogens that interfere with hormone processes and increase cancer risk. Research is showing that even small amounts of chemicals can have a significant impact on our health. Children, due to their smaller body size, are particularly vulnerable to the constant barrage chemicals. They are still developing their bodies, which means that they need healthy hormone systems to occur in the correct order. Children’s bodies can’t filter out toxic substances as well as adults because their systems haven’t fully developed. Researchers have found that chemical exposure from parents, grandparents and great-grandparents may increase the risk of a child developing disease. Yet in the U.S. carcinogens, endocrine disrupting chemicals and other harmful substances are not regulated. In the United States, many chemicals that have been banned in other countries are found in personal care and processed food products. According to estimates, 90-95 per cent of cancers can be prevented. Globally, however, only 7-9% of cancer funds are allocated to prevention. This means that in our “war against cancer”, we spend 90 percent of the war budget treating injured soldiers and less than 10% on preventative measures. We should be pursuing new treatments and cures, but there is more we can do to prevent cancer. The Biden administration must include efforts to reduce carcinogen exposure in its federal Cancer Moonshot Plan. While the administration works to rebuild the American Economy, lawmakers should focus on a shift away from toxic chemicals that increase cancer risk and towards safer alternatives, which are already produced by significant advances in green, sustainable chemistry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should take extra steps to protect the public from toxic chemicals such as PFAS, also known as. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should take additional steps to protect people from toxic chemicals like PFAS — a.k.a. States are setting the pace when it comes enacting more stringent regulations for these chemicals, whether they be in drinking water, consumer products, or air pollution. Massachusetts’ Toxics Use Reduction Act was passed more than 30 year ago. It requires companies to track and document their use of toxic chemicals and their disposal, as well as to develop a plan to reduce their use. In the 20 years following the passage of the law, Massachusetts saw a 32 percent decline in cancer-causing chemical use and a 93 percent decrease in releases of carcinogens known or suspected into the environment.

California’s Proposition 65 alerts consumers to the presence of carcinogenic chemicals in products they purchase. Recent examples of groundbreaking PFAS legislation are found in Colorado, Minnesota and Washington State. The federal regulatory agencies should take the lead from the state legislators who are implementing these initiatives. The European Union offers better chemical regulations while still allowing economies to thrive. The REACH program of the E.U. protects Europeans from many carcinogens that Americans are regularly exposed to.

My sibling was one of those lucky people. She has been in remission from cancer for over a decade. I have had the pleasure of watching her marry and have two beautiful kids. I have talked to her about the anxiety that she feels every time she has a scan to ensure her cancer is not returning. And I know that she, like most childhood and young adult cancer survivors, would rather have had prevention than a cure.

Kristina Marusic is the author of “New War on Cancer: The Unlikely Heroes Revolutionizing Prevention” and is an investigative reporter at Environmental Health Sciences.