Agriculture, Pesticides, and Wilms Tumor

The American Cancer Society says that “There are no known lifestyle-related or environmental causes of Wilms tumor, so it is important to remember that there is nothing these children or their parents could have done to prevent these cancers.” Our research has shown that, while it is certainly the case that children with Wilms and their  parents should not be blamed for “life style” choices, the other part — about environmental causes — might not be true.  Multiple studies have been done that show a connection between the use of pesticides and the occurrence of Wilms tumor in young children. Because much of St. Clair County is agricultural, the use of pesticides is a possible factor in the cause of Wilms tumor.

Wilms Tumor

Wilms tumor is a cancer of the kidneys that typically occurs in children and rarely in adults. The name refers to Dr. Max Wilms, the German surgeon who first described this type of tumor. Approximately 500 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. annually. Typical symptoms are: an abnormally large abdomen, abdominal pain, fever, nausea and vomiting, blood in the urine (in about 20% of cases), and high blood pressure in some cases. Wilms tumor is by far the most common cancerous tumor of the kidney in children, representing about 90% of cases of this disease.

Link to Pesticides

Recent studies have found that children of parents who used pesticides in their jobs or around their homes were more likely to have Wilms tumor than children whose parents did not report such pesticide use.  Not all studies have found such a relationship.  Because Wilms tumor is most common in very young children, it is reasonable to suppose that parental exposures may be important.

One study found that children living in houses that had been fumigated with pest exterminating chemicals have a risk 2.2 times higher than other children of having the disease. However, the frequency of extermination did not affect this risk.

In Brazil, researchers found that children whose parents had used agricultural pesticides at least ten times were more than three times as likely as other children to be diagnosed with the disease by age 10.  The risk increased as the frequency of pesticide use increased.  This study did not specifically measure the timing of the use of the pesticides to determine whether it occurred during pregnancy or before conception.  Risks were highest for children under four.

A study looking at death certificates for children in England and Wales looked at occupational exposures of fathers of children who died of cancer.  The study looked at almost 170,000 death certificates.  It found that the risk of death from Wilms tumor was higher for children whose fathers worked in agriculture.  This was not true for any other childhood cancer in this study. A study in Norway reported that children diagnosed with Wilms tumor by age five were more likely to have fathers who worked with pesticide spraying equipment than other children.

Sheila Zahm and Mary Ward summarized the studies of pesticides and childhood cancer and concluded that the following childhood cancers were linked to pesticide exposure: leukemia, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, soft-tissue sarcoma, Ewing’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma, and cancers of the brain, colorectum and testes. It is noteworthy that many of the reported increased risks are of greater magnitude than those observed in studies of pesticide-exposed adults, suggesting that children may be particularly sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of pesticides. 

Statistics on Cancer in Michigan can be found here

sources: (picture);

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