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Scientists blame pollution and pesticides as childhood cancer rates in Scotland soar by 34% in a decade

Ryan Whiteford, 11, has leukaemia
Ryan Whiteford, 11, has leukaemia

The number of child cancer cases in Scotland has risen by a third in the last decade, we can reveal.

The surge in diagnoses yesterday prompted experts, charities and parents of young patients to demand urgent research into the causes.

Scientists believe air pollution, the use of pesticides, and exposure to chemicals in household paint and solvents are all to blame.

A total of 151 Scottish children, from newborns to 14, were treated for cancer in 2016, compared with 112 in 2007, a rise of 34%.

A Scottish Government report on childhood cancers highlights the increase since 2010, adding: “Generally, the numbers of new cancers in children have increased since 2010.”

While the overall number of cancer cases in the Scottish population is also increasing, this is mainly due to the country’s ageing population.

The report says that the most common cancer in children is leukaemia.

More than 80% of children survive cancer but the legacy of treatment can be life-changing.

Dr Denis Henshaw, scientific adviser for the charity, Children with Cancer UK, believes that air pollution and pesticides are the main causes.

But he said the UK Government had ignored warnings about the link between air pollution and cancer when motorists were encouraged to switch from petrol to diesel cars.

He said: “Rising pollution levels are by far the biggest culprits, responsible for 40% of the rise.

“The first warnings linking poor health to pollution were given in the 1990s but the government gave diesel car owners tax breaks in 2001.”

Dr Henshaw, Professor of Human Radiation Effects at Bristol University, added: “When you look at cancers such as childhood leukaemia there is no doubt that environmental factors are playing a big role.

“We were shocked to see the figures, and it’s modern lifestyle I’m afraid.

“Many items on the list of environmental causes are now known to be carcinogenic, such as air pollution and pesticides and solvents.

“Leukaemia is by far the most common childhood cancer and the links are environmental.

“Pollution levels are up as are the amount of pesticides we use in farming and at home.

“It may well be an accumulation of pollution, pesticides and solvents which are proven carcinogens.

“What’s worrying is it is very hard to avoid a lot of these things. How can you avoid air pollution?”

The charity says more needs to be done to establish the causes of the increase, and also to deliver new treatments which are less harmful to young patients.

Solvents are used in a diversity of applications including paints and coatings, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, household and industrial cleaners, and inks.

The Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group, an umbrella group for child cancer professionals, say that the rise is due in part to better recording but there is a real increase in childhood cancer.

A spokesman said: “The cancer incidence in children, teenagers and young adults has risen but it remains a rare disease.

“Some of it is because of better recording but also a real rise in numbers.

“There is an increasing body of evidence pointing to air pollution, particularly from traffic, as a risk factor for childhood cancer and particularly acute leukaemias. But more research needs to be done to establish greater definitive links.

“Paint and pesticide exposure found slightly increased incidences of childhood leukaemia in children whose parents were exposed from a few months before conception, through pregnancy or after birth.

“They suggest a link but are not conclusive.”

The Soil Association, which campaigns for eco-friendly farming, said: “Government figures show the number of active substances – the actual chemicals applied to three major UK crops – wheat, onions and potatoes – have increased between three and 11 times from the 1970s to 2015.”

Pesticide Action Network UK said many pesticides are hormone-disrupting which they believe can affect children, adding: “They are used near playgrounds, schools and parks.”

Scientists in Manchester University found as far back as 2001 worrying increases in the most common childhood cancers.

They estimated a rise in childhood leukaemia and brain tumours of between 1% and 3% a year going back 45 years.

A study of Swiss scientists found that children who live near a motorway have a higher risk of leukaemia.

Their report found that children within 100 metres of a motorway had a 47% to 57% higher risk of contracting leukaemia.

It positively linked exhaust fumes to the illness.

The Scottish Government said: “We are committed to improving children’s cancer services.

“We are working hard to ensure health professionals have and can achieve appropriate skills in child health and paediatrics.”

Ryan’s story: Dad of young leukaemia patient calls for urgent research to explain the rising toll

Paul Whiteford knows what it is like to have a child diagnosed with cancer and that is why he is calling for urgent research into the factors fuelling the increase in cases.

His son Ryan, six, was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016, a devastating shock to Paul, his wife and Ryan’s twin, Alex.

The youngsters spent months of separation in infancy because of Ryan’s prolonged hospital cancer treatment.

Ryan developed acute lymphoblastic leukaemia when he was just three.

Dad-of-three, Paul, 33, from Fort William, is calling for greater research into the causes of childhood cancer.

“We need to investigate what is driving an increase in the numbers of young people with cancer,” he said.

“I suspect there will be more than one reason and that they may well include pesticides and pollution.

“Ryan was unwell with ear infections before he was diagnosed and some medical research suggests this may trigger leukaemia in rare cases.

“However, serious questions arise over what we are doing to our planet and how much pollution and pesticides contribute. Do they cause genetic mutations which make us more susceptible?

“It is a grey area which needs urgent attention.

“Our great fear is that our other children will develop it. It’s a natural worry for any parent of a child with cancer.

“Questions arise over how we can all lead more environmentally-friendly lives.

“But the government made diesel cars cheaper and mass-produced food possible with pesticides.

“Who can afford to live only on organic food or electric cars?”

Paul and his partner Leesa live on constant alert, watching for any infection.

The youngster was rushed by ambulance to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, on Thursday after developing an infection.

His lowered immune system means even simple viruses can prove fatal.

Ryan is on maintenance chemo and hopes to be treatment-free in January.