There are figures that leave you speechless, and trigger the anger of scientists. Why the environmental problem is not tackled head-on in the fight against childhood cancers ? This is the debate raised by Professor Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College and project manager at the Monaco Scientific Center, who published, on June 8, a study on the link between the increase cancers in toddlers and chemical pollution.
If research dedicated to treatments has continued to develop over the past fifty years, at the same time, the number of pediatric cancers has increased. The results are severe: since 1976, the incidence rate (the appearance of new cases over a given period) of leukemia has increased by 21 % in the USA. That of brain cancer of 45 %, and that of testicular cancer by 51 %. So much so that cancer is now “ the leading cause of death in American children under 15 »we learn. “ Too fast to be genetic »this increase cannot only be explained by better access to medical care, insists the researcher with Reporterre.
At least 120 hazardous chemicals
For Philip Landrigan, the observation is clear: it is imperative to look at the side of external factors, in other words, environmental. In its sights: manufactured chemicals, materials produced in astronomical quantities since the 1950s and whose “ global production is expected to double by 2030 ».
Their consequences on health have not ceased to be documented for many years. Among the most toxic that pollute the entire planet: polychlorinated biphenyls (an electrical insulator whose production is prohibited in France), multiple pesticides, brominated flame retardants (used in plastics, textiles, household appliances ) or phthalates (plasticizers).
“ We fly without radar. »
Based on the meticulous examination of epidemiological and toxicological data published on more than a thousand chemicals, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), dependent on theWHO, revealed that at least 120 of them are the direct cause of cancers. Even more disturbing, “ exposure in the first 1,000 days of life is particularly dangerous »insists Philip Landrigan.
However, “ most of these carcinogens are still allowed on the market »denounces the American scientist who pleads in favor of a change of paradigm to fight against what he describes as real “ chemical crisis ». In other words, there are thousands of manufactured chemicals that children are exposed to every day that have never been tested for toxicity. “ We fly without radar »he summarizes in a pithy formula.
“ Little or no assessment of their potential dangers »
Near ReporterreAndré Cicolella, president of the Réseau Environnement Santé association, agrees: “ This study comes, once again, to certify what we already know. But the denial of the link between the evolution of the number of cancers and the environment remains paradoxical. » While this link continues to be demonstrated, he believes that neither the government nor research is looking at it enough.
For this chemical engineer and toxicologist, separating the analysis of pediatric cancers from those of adults which “ increase by 1 respectively % per year » represents a deep “ aberration ». “ This disease is not only a mutation due to age. It is the result of ten mechanisms that interact with each other in which we find chemical substances, endocrine disruptors… According to several scientific studies, certain cancers such as breast or prostate cancer start during pregnancy, and therefore understand the evolution of cancers in children will make it possible to better understand that of adults »he explains.
“ It is urgent to break this omerta on the environmental causes of cancer. »
As a major obstacle, Philip Landrigan cites the lack of money dedicated to this public health issue. The US government agency for cancer research, the National Cancer Institute, only dedicates about 1 % of its pediatric cancer budget dedicated to research on environmental causes.
To get out of this dramatic assessment, he defends the idea that policies on chemicals must henceforth be based on the precautionary principle. “ One of the causes of the increase in these childhood cancers is that in most countries the chemicals produced are presumed harmless until they cause disease or environmental damage and are put on the market with little or no assessment of their potential dangers »emphasizes Philip Landrigan.
In order to reverse the trend, he launches a hopeful appeal to the world of research: “ The time has come for the oncology and public health communities to come together to tackle the rising incidence of childhood cancer together » and deploy research programs “ focused on prevention »aiming “ to discover the environmental causes of malignant tumors in children ».
According to CIRC forecasts, the number of new cases of cancer in France will increase in twenty years from 478,000 to 579,000 (+21 %) and the number of deaths from 186,000 to 252,000 (+35 %). To respond to this crisis, President Emmanuel Macron presented the fourth cancer plan on February 4, 2021. Here too, environmental causes such as endocrine disruptors are marginalized in favor of tobacco and alcohol. “ It is urgent to break this omerta on the environmental causes of cancerconcludes André Cicolella. Over the past sixteen years, cancers affecting 20-39 year olds have increased by 39 %. An abnormal progression that is not ready to stop. »