My life changed forever two years ago when my father passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), and this left me searching for answers about the cause of his death. As a military man, dad was exposed to a long list of chemicals during his lifetime, including Agent Orange. Although it is impossible for me to know for certain exactly what caused his NHL, there is one chemical that stands out again and again during my research: Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).
Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Facts
I quickly learned that NHL is a form of cancer that starts in the lymphocytes, which are an integral part of the immune system. I was also shocked to find out that there are more than 30 types of NHL, and they are primarily categorized as either indolent or aggressive. NHL affects women, men and children of all ages, but it is most commonly diagnosed in people who are 60 or older. Every year, approximately 66,000 people are diagnosed with NHL in the U.S., and 29 percent of these individuals will suffer the same fate as my dad.
What Causes Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?
It was really disturbing to learn that the rate of NHL has doubled in less than 50 years. Even worse is the fact that medical experts are not able to conclusively determine what has caused this massive increase. It is known that certain risk factors can make someone more likely to develop NHL, including autoimmune disorders, HIV, and chemical exposures.
What Are Polychlorinated Biphenyls?
PCBs were prevalent throughout the U.S. from 1930 to 1977. In fact, the U.S. led the world in PCB production during this time period. PCBs were used in a wide variety of industries, primarily as a coolant, cutting, or dielectric fluid. In 1979, Congress banned the production of PCBs, but this was too late to help people who had already been exposed to these toxic, synthetic chemicals.
Can Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls Cause Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?
As previously mentioned, the rate of NHL cases began skyrocketing approximately 50 years ago. Therefore, it does not seem like a coincidence that it has already been confirmed that chemical exposure can cause NHL, and PCBs were at their highest level of production during the 1960s. Interestingly, although the percentage of NHL cases has continued to rise since PCBs were banned, the rate of annual growth has been drastically reduced from 3.6 percent to 0.5 percent. Perhaps this is a coincidence, but many medical studies make it clear that there is most likely a direct correlation between these two events.
In 2012, Environmental Health Perspectives took a close look at several studies that sought to determine if PCBs were causing NHL. The vast majority of these studies found that PCBs were almost certainly one piece of the puzzle, and the overall conclusion was that PCBs do have a causal role in at least some cases of NHL carcinogenesis.
Furthermore, the data that was studied proved that PCBs have immunostimulatory and immunosuppressive effects. This is important information because severe immune system issues are known to be a leading risk factor in the development of NHL. In other words, even if PCBs themselves are not the sole cause of NHL, they can cause medical issues that make people more likely to eventually contract NHL.
Agent Orange had PCBs in it, and the EPA points out that PCBs have the potential to strongly affect an exposed individual’s immune system. One review of multiple studies found that up to 43 percent of NHL cases that do not involve an HIV patient show at least some evidence that the participants were exposed to PCBs.
Knowing for certain whether or not PCBs ultimately caused my dad’s death will not bring him back, but it is important for me to have the opportunity to let others know that exposure to these chemicals could lead to NHL. Whether you, your spouse, parent, or another loved one was in the military or worked in an industry that used PCBs, it is important to be aware of the warning signs of NHL so that you can get to a doctor immediately if need be.
The most common symptom of NHL is an enlarged lymph node in the armpit, groin or neck. These nodes are typically pain free, but you might experience some discomfort, and they could cause stomach pain, difficulty breathing or coughing. This year alone, 2.1 percent of women, men, and children will be diagnosed with NHL, but early detection will allow 70 percent of them to have a five-year survival rate. My family will never be the same without my dad, but there is still time for you to get a check-up if you think there is any chance you could have NHL.