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Response to reports that ‘modern life’ has increased rates of childhood cancer

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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05 Sep 2016

New report claims 40% rise in recorded childhood cancer cases due to lifestyle and environmental causes.

Many newspapers over the weekend covered a new report that claims a 40% rise in recorded cases of childhood cancers in the past 18 years is mostly down to a variety of lifestyle and environmental causes. We feel the evidence is anything but clear-cut.

The researchers analysed Office for National Statistics data on people under the age of 25 diagnosed with cancer since 1998. They found that there are now 1,300 more cancer cases diagnosed a year overall than in 1998. Colon cancer, thyroid, ovarian and cervical cancers – very rare in people under 25 – were highlighted as having a particularly high increase in cases.

Despite cancer screening, diagnosis and recording having improved greatly during this time, as well as a population increase that the analysis didn’t account for, the report authors say the increase in recorded cases can mostly be explained by various factors connected to ‘modern lifestyle’. These include everything from burnt barbeques, pesticides and electronic devices to pollution and working night shifts.

Researchers involved in the report also repeated old claims that power lines and drinking coffee during pregnancy can lead to an increase in the risk of childhood leukaemia. The possible association between power lines and cancer has caused a huge amount of public anxiety over the years, but has never been backed up by any quality scientific evidence.

“There is no new evidence here and the most up-to-date and robust studies into the causes of childhood cancer have discredited the idea of a link between power lines and childhood leukaemia,” says Dr Matt Kaiser, Head of Research at Bloodwise. “Laboratory studies have also shown that there are no plausible mechanisms that electromagnetic radiation from these sources can lead to biological changes.”  

The evidence that drinking coffee during pregnancy can lead to childhood leukaemia is equally extremely limited and repetition of such alarmist claims can be very distressing for parents. The evidence (or lack of it) for the links between drinking coffee during pregnancy, power lines and magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia, as well as the potential pitfalls of interpreting these sorts of results, is analysed extensively in a blog from 2014 by Dr Matt Kaiser here