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Naphthalene Linked to Cancer and Childhood Chromosome Damage

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childhood chromosome changes and cancer have links to naphthalene iStockphoto/Thinkstock

A common air pollutant previously associated with cancer in adults may also be putting children at an increase risk for chromosomal aberrations (CAs) that may be linked to leukemia and other serious health risks, a new study says.

Researchers from the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the Columbia University Medical Center, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found naphthalene, the primary component of household mothball fumes, can potentially “scramble” genetic chromosomal coding of children exposed to high levels of the chemical before birth.

Naphthalene is a strong-smelling, white chemical compound commonly found in outdoor and indoor air pollution, including automotive exhaust, tobacco smoke, coal or wood burning stoves, paint, toilet bowl cleaners, PVC plastics and mothballs, among other sources.

The chemical belongs to a class of air pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and is classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Cancer Research and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Studies show naphthalene, a chemical that is virtually everywhere, is associated with hemolytic anemia, kidney and liver damage, and neurological damage, as well as cataracts and retina damage in adults who’ve inhaled fumes, ingested it or have had skin contact with the compound.

Prior research has also established a link between prenatal exposure to PAHs and increased risk for childhood obesity, IQ deficits, and CAs.

The new study is the first to present evidence in humans of CAs, including translocations, associated with exposure to naphthalene during childhood. Chromosomal translocations are a potentially more harmful and long-lasting subtype of CAs.

CAs have been associated with increased cancer risk in adults, says the study’s lead author, Manuela A. Orjuela, MD, an assistant professor of clinical environmental health science at Columbia University Medical Center and whose practice includes child cancer patients at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital.

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