Poor Air in Calif. Leaves Children at Higher Cancer Risk

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 17 Sep 2002
Time: 22:53:41
Remote Name:


By Gary Polakovic,
Los Angeles Times, 

9/16/2002 LOS ANGELES - A report being released today by a Washington, D.C., environmental group says that children in California are at greater risk of contracting cancer from inhaling toxic air pollutants than adults. The study, which focused on five areas of the state, maintains that a 2-week-old baby in the Los Angeles region has already been exposed to more pollution than the federal government deems acceptable over a lifetime. By age 18, the same child will have inhaled enough contaminants to exceed the acceptable exposure level hundreds of times over, according to the study. 

''The concentration of cancer-causing air pollution in California is so great that, just by breathing this air, children will accumulate cancer risks that are pretty astounding,'' said Andy Igrejas, environmental health program director for the National Environmental Trust, the advocacy group that produced the report. ''This underscores the urgency of efforts to reduce the cancer risks. We have such a long way to go for the air to be healthy,'' he said. The study examined pollution concentrations in the Los Angeles region, the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento Valley, and San Diego. The findings echo those of other studies, including a report prepared three years ago by Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California. 

California is the nation's smoggiest state and researchers have long known that air pollution contains a mix of industrial and automotive chemicals. Solvents, metals, and unburned fuel not only contribute to smog and haze, but can cause cancer, reproductive harm, and neurological damage. Yet there is disagreement over how harmful toxic emissions are and what should be done to reduce risks. ''If you live in an urbanized, industrialized society with a growing economy you're going to be exposed to some level of toxic air pollution,'' said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. Each year, 102,000 tons of the most common toxic emissions are released in California. Traces of benzene from gasoline fumes, hexavalent chromium from metal-plating shops, and diesel exhaust from trucks and buses are widespread. 

In the four-county Los Angeles region, the state air board estimates toxic air contaminants cause 720 cancer cases per million people annually - a risk almost 1,000 times greater than the federal government's acceptable limit. That federal benchmark, however, is extraordinarily conservative. It seeks to limit the odds of a person's contracting cancer from contaminants to one chance in 1 million. 

Melanie Marty, chief of the air toxicology unit at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said children are more vulnerable to pollutants. They are more active and inhale relatively more air than adults, have less well-developed immune systems, and undergo rapid growth, during which cells are more vulnerable to attack by carcinogens. Further, she said, some animal studies show that exposure to toxic chemicals early in life increases the risk of cancer in adult years. ''They are making some leaps in the way they estimate risk'' in the new report, Marty said, ''but their major point, that children have higher exposures than adults, that's not disputed.'' But do children get more cancer as a result? That is unclear, specialists say. Theoretical risks do not always translate into actual cancer cases. 

In a study published earlier this year, researchers from the California Department of Health Services and the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, Calif., failed to detect any significant increase in childhood cancer among 7,000 children living near freeways, where toxic air pollution is substantial. Similarly, smoggy California communities do not appear to have more deaths caused by lung cancer than other places. 

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 9/16/2002.

Last changed: March 26, 2009