Tropic of cancer

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Paediatricians are worried about rising cancer rates among children. Like Anupam Sachdeva and A K Dutta, head of department of paediatrics at Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi. They have been witness to a rise in the incidences of brain cancer and acute lymphocytic leukaemia, commonly found among children.

In fact, incidence rates of childhood cancer in India have risen in the past decade by about 14 per cent, according to the icmr's latest cancer registry. The greatest surge has been in leukaemia, says L S Arya of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (aiims), New Delhi, who has worked extensively on such illnesses. Arya also says that parents are more aware today and seek early treatment, which may have also led to this upward trend in cancer registries in hospitals. Recent research attributes this to environmental causes.

A study in Cancer Research, a us-based journal, in 1991, found that baby rats were seven times more susceptible than older rats to a potent liver carcinogen. To make matters worse, infants and children have greater exposure to carcinogens than adults. For instance, chemicals like formaldehyde, exuded by new carpets, insecticides sprayed at home, herbicides in the lawn, even benches coated with wood preservatives linger longer at the ground level. Children crawling on the floor, playing on the lawns or tumbling in the grass with pets come in close contact with such chemicals.

High exposure to toxic compounds like pesticides (specially organophospates) have long been recognised to cause nerve damage (called the nerve gas syndrome). More recent animal studies have suggested that even low dose exposures can cause injury to the developing foetus, and can do so at exposure levels that do not cause clinical symptoms in the mother.

For example, on an average, children in the us by the age of six, would have accumulated about 35 per cent of their allowable lifetime cancer risk from captan