Cancer is the leading cause of death from disease in children in the United States, with more than 12,000 new cases diagnosed each year. The disease develops from multiple factors, some unknown, including environmental pollutants, genes, nutrition, immunologic and socioeconomic factors. We don’t know exactly how cancers develop; for example, scientists and physicians do not know how more than 90 percent of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia develops.

Therefore, we believe that environmental exposure during this critical time in development can have effects in childhood, and contribute to cancer and chronic disease risk in later life. Our research has shown that chronic prenatal exposure to air pollution (PAH) from fuel burning is linked to increased cancer risk. The developing fetus is much more vulnerable because of low-functioning detoxification enzymes, lower DNA repair efficiency, and rapid cell proliferation.

What We Know About Cancer

The Center’s Mothers & Newborns Study in New York City finds that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is associated with genetic damage in babies before they are born. Similar results are being found in our Poland and China studies where pollution levels are higher. Such damage early in life leaves a long period of time for chronic diseases to develop.

Key findings from Center research showing how early life exposures to PAH are linked to increased genetic damage.

  • Prenatal exposure to PAH was linked to structural changes in babies’ chromosomes, and these genetic alterations have been related in other studies to increased risk of cancer in children and adults. Furthermore, prenatal maternal exposure to PAH is associated with abnormalities, suggesting that the carcinogenic process may begin in the womb.

  • There were marked inter-individual variations among children in response to prenatal exposure to the same level of toxicants. Genetic variance and PAH have significant effect on these outcomes, suggesting individuals are placed in different levels of risk to carcinogens and environmental toxins. These findings were seen in NYC and Polish cohort indicating the importance of gene-environment interactions in health outcomes.

  • Approximately 40% of babies in the study were born with DNA damage associated with PAH. In other studies such damage has been tied to an increased risk of cancer. Of particular concern, newborns had higher (approximately 10-fold) levels of adducts than mothers per unit of estimated exposure, indicating greater fetal susceptibility and potential risk from these pollutants.

What You Can Do

You can lower your own and your child’s risk of getting cancer by following these health tips:

  • Practice good eating habits like: eat 5 or more fruits and vegetables every day

  • Exercise regularly

  • Join community efforts to improve air quality

  • Do not smoke; ask other household members and visitors not to smoke near your child or in your home or car; if they need to smoke, ask them to do it outdoors

  • Do not eat a lot of unhealthy foods as it may lead to excessive weight gain

  • Do not eat burned, charred, or blacked foods, such as from a grill