Cancer Threatens China's Children

Jun 10, 2009
*Special to asia!

In a feat unparalleled in history, China has lifted an entire generation out of abject poverty. But in doing so, she may have also doomed the next generation. looks at the rising incidence of cancer among Chinese children.

Perera is a pioneer in a new field called molecular epidemiology, a discipline that combines urban survey with the study of subtle molecular changes in the human body.

She is attached to the Mailman School of Columbia University. Since 1998, Perera has started a Mothers and Newborns Study, focusing on the effect of pollutants inhaled by expecting mothers on their babies.

Her study is far from conclusive. But eight years of study on 700 women and their offspring have suggested a strong link between fetal pollution and subsequent illnesses of the baby, child or adult.

Perera’s subjects are mostly Afro-American mothers from lower-income families. These people tend to live with more pollution. Some, such as cigarette smoke, are of their own making. But there are others that cannot be avoided because they form part of their surroundings, such as lead in old paint, vehicle exhaust, burnt garbage and smoggy urban air. The circumstances of these women bear a strong resemblance to those of the millions of mothers in China.

Perera monitors these pregnant women’s exposure to airborne chemicals. She also tests their babies as soon as they are born, using the blood from their umbilical cords.

This allows her and her team to track the pollutants that are being passed from mother to child. She has established a positive correlation between the amount and types of pollutants to lower birth weight and smaller head circumferences (which could affect brain development) in some infants.

Perera also looks for signs that show chemicals inhaled or ingested by the mothers had led to changes in the genetic makeup of the children. Specifically, she is watching out for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—pollutants from cigarette smoke, power-plant emissions, automobile exhaust and other sources of combustion. In laboratory tests, these compounds cause cancer in mice and other animals. Many studies of industrial workers also strongly suggest exposure to those chemicals can cause lung cancer.

Perera has also found a positive correlation between air pollution and mutation in the children’s genes. On average, the higher the amount of hydrocarbon compounds in the air as inhaled by the mother, the higher the aberration in the chromosomes of their children. In short, those babies’ DNAs have been changed—and likely damaged—by the pollutants.

The studies by Perera have caused a stir in America. They also have huge implications for China. Every year, at least 20 million babies are born in China. Some 300 million have been born since the country started industrialising on a large scale. If pre-natal pollution is indeed linked to cancer and arrested child development, how many Chinese children would have been born with damaged genes, and how many will eventually succumb to cancer?

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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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