Is there a link between pesticide exposure and childhood cancers?

Children’s exposure to residential indoor insecticides was linked to an increased risk of childhood cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma, according to a review article published online today in Pediatrics.

Cancer in children is rare, but it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the United States. In 2014, it was estimated that 15,780 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 years were diagnosed with cancer and 1,960 died of the disease in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

The most common types of cancer diagnosed in children and adolescents are leukemia,brain and other central nervous system tumorslymphomarhabdomyosarcoma,neuroblastomaWilms tumorbone cancer, and gonadal (testicular and ovarian) germ cell tumors

“Although pesticides are essential for eradication of pests in agriculture and for public health, they are toxic chemicals and can affect children’s health in a variety of settings, such as at home, in parks and gardens, and on school grounds,” the study’s authors noted.

In the analysis, the risk of childhood hematopoietic cancers (which primarily refers to leukemias) increased with the frequency of use. The researchers did not find any significant childhood cancer risk with exposure to pesticides used in the outdoor environment, however, exposure to herbicides was associated with a slightly higher risk of childhood cancers in general. They did not find an increased risk of brain tumors with exposures to indoor and outdoor pesticides.

The greatest risk estimates were observed between childhood exposure to indoor insecticides and the risk of acute leukemia with an odds ratio of 1.47. This means a child exposed to indoor insecticides has 1.47 times the risk of developing leukemia than a non-exposed child.

Researchers concluded that cancer risks are related to the type of pesticides used and the location of application during childhood. They advised parents, teachers and child care providers should be aware of these dangers and make every effort to limit children’s exposure to pesticides. Since children’s immune systems are still developing, they may be less able than adults to get rid of these chemicals once it enters in their bodies.

We asked E. Anders Kolb, MD, Director of the Nemours Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children to take a closer look at the study.

What are you initial thoughts about the study?

This well done and comprehensive study looked at 16 different reports from around the world and found a small, but measurable correlation between the use of indoor pesticides and increased risk for developing childhood leukemia.

What does this study lack? 

The study does not describe the specific compounds or chemicals used, nor does it define the level of exposure, which could mean anything from ingestion to being in the room that was treated with pesticides. 

How should parents interpret these findings?

The study findings are not cause for undue alarm. Childhood leukemias are relatively rare and the vast majority are attributable to unknown causes. The number of children whose disease can be traced to indoor pesticide use is very, very small indeed. Parents should, however, be aware of the risks and limit exposing their children to indoor pest control chemicals.

What are some good resources for parents to learn more about these risks and limiting exposure?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency: Reduce Your Child's Chances of Pesticide Poisoning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Pesticide exposures


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