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Auto Exhaust Linked to Childhood Cancers, New Study Finds

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study finds a connection between childhood cancer and car exhaust Auremar/PhotoSpin

If you’re like most people, your car is more than just a means of transportation — much, much more. It represents freedom. Your independence to go places, choose your own path and for the adventurous types, discovering the previously unexplored.

For nearly a century the hyper-mobile society we live in has meant we have developed a deep love affair with our automobiles. The social interdependence between human and machine is undeniable, but it goes farther than that.

There’s a psychological dependence too. Modern humans have developed a nearly innate ability to see our vehicles as an extension of ourselves.

Given the sanctity of that relationship, what I’m about to tell you won’t come easy, but you need to know. Our cars are making us — and perhaps worse, our children — sick.

That’s right. Scientific experts have reams of data to show that the nation faces an epidemic of illnesses that are exacerbated by vehicle exhaust. These illnesses include cardiovascular disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and diabetes.

The latest study, presented on April 8, 2013 at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2013 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., showed a possible link between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and several childhood cancers.

Julia Heck, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and member of Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center found that increased exposure to traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy was associated with a higher incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (a white blood cell cancer) and two other rare childhood cancers.

Specifically, Heck found a link to germ cell tumors — cancers of the testicles, ovaries, and other organs — and eye cancer, called retinoblastoma, particularly the type that affects both eyes.

Previous international studies have linked childhood leukemia, lymphomas and brain tumors to vehicle exhaust. The UCLA study is the first to look at vehicle air pollution and rare childhood cancers. The highest increases were found for retinoblastoma and germ cell tumors.

Motor vehicles emit millions of pounds of hazardous pollutants into the air each year in the United States that include compounds such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates (fine dust and soot), and toxic air pollutants such as benzene.

These chemical particulates have been linked to lung cancer and breast cancer in adults as well as a host of other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This was reported in a 65-page policy study by the Connecticut nonprofit, Environment and Human Health, Inc.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that vehicle emissions account for as many as half of all cancers attributed to outdoor air pollution, and account for 1.3 million deaths worldwide each year.

“The main reason for undertaking this study was that we know much more about the causes of adult cancers than we do of the causes of childhood cancers,” said Heck.

“We studied pregnancy exposures because the fetus is likely to be more vulnerable to environmental factors during that time, and we also know that certain childhood cancers originate in utero.”

For the study, Heck and her colleagues identified 3,590 children from the California Cancer Registry born between 1998 and 2007 who could be linked to a California birth certificate and who were five years of age or younger at the time of diagnosis.

Those kids were then compared to 80,224 randomly selected California children in the control group.

UCLA researchers used sophisticated modeling to estimate each child’s exposure to gas and diesel vehicle pollution at home, during each trimester of their mother’s pregnancy with the child and their first year of life. Cancer risk was estimated using a statistical analysis called unconditional logistic regression.

Increases in exposure to traffic-related air pollution positively correlated with increases in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, germ cell tumors and retinoblastoma, according to the study results.

The pollution exposure estimates were highly correlated across pregnancy trimesters and the first year of life, meaning that no particular period stood out as a higher exposure time. This made it difficult for the scientists to determine if one period of exposure was more dangerous than any other, the UCLA study points out.

Because this is the first study of this type, and these are rare diseases, Heck cautioned that the findings still need to be replicated in further studies. Nevertheless, the results provide new leads to potential causes of serious childhood cancers.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and Scuba enthusiast who lives in San Diego with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in publications around the world.

“Childhood cancer and traffic-related air pollution exposure in pregnancy and early life.” Juila Heck, Ph.D., M.P.H. et al. Abstract Number: 2531, presented 9 April 2013 at ACCR Annual Meeting; “Exposure to Air Pollution During Pregnancy Linked to Increased Incidence of Specific Pediatric Cancers.” Jeremy Moore, ACCR press release

“UCLA Researchers Link Auto Pollution Exposure and Some Childhood Cancers” Shaun Mason, 9 April 2013, UCLA press release.

Exposure to motor vehicle exhaust and childhood cancer. Feychting M, Svensson D, Ahlbom A. Scand J Work Environ Health. 1998 Feb;24(1):8-11.
Abstract at:

Harmful Effects of Vehicle Exhaust. Environment and Human Health, Inc.
http://www.ehhi.org/reports/exhaust/exhaust06.pdf and California Dept. of Public Health.

Air Toxics from Motor Vehicles. EPA. Online at:

Outdoor Air Pollution. Bart Ostro, World Health Organization. 2004 http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/publications/ebd5.pdf http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en

Reviewed April 9, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.