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We Must Raise Our Voices to Prevent Childhood Cancer

In 1991, our only child, Colette, at age five was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Wilm’s tumor. For the past two decades I have been writing a nonfiction memoir, The Flower That Shattered The Stone, that details the death Colette from cancer; the launch of The Colette Chuda Environmental Fund and the founding of Healthy Child Healthy World; the groundswell of scientific research in the past decade on environmental exposures and their effect on children; and the growth of the grass roots political movement to protect children against these assaults.

The Colette Chuda Environmental Fund was initially established to bridge the gap between work being conducted in environmental health research and the pediatric oncological and hematological communities. Our focus was the causation of childhood cancers in relation to environmental exposures.
Prior to 1991, little was known about the causation of many childhood cancers. Many scientists concurred that genetic susceptibility played a major role. Today, we understand that most cancers result from the interactions of genetic susceptibilities and environmental exposures. Here’s an eye-opener: The vast majority of the 85,000 chemicals used in the U.S. have never been tested for toxicity to people.

This means we don’t know the safety of most of the chemicals in the products that surround us every day. We do know that early life exposures to harmful substances can affect children and even affect their health decades later.
Given the limited resources available today for new initiatives, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences under the direction of Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., is supporting research in every way possible to provide us with reliable information on the health effects of environmental exposures. Dr. Birnbaum states, 鈥淏ecause children are still developing, they can be more vulnerable than adults to the health effects of environmental contaminants. That鈥檚 why research on children鈥檚 health is a priority for NIEHS. We want to learn how to prevent diseases such as cancer, autism and obesity by changing our environment.鈥

Mary Gant who has served NIEHS as a liaison between the government agency and Congress for 25 years compares the rising incidence of childhood cancers and believes 鈥渢he increase in the incidence of childhood cancer between 1999 and 2008 shows clearly that we need to increase our efforts in preventing cancer by understanding how environmental triggers coupled with genetic susceptibilities can initiate or promote cancer in our children.鈥

In my memoir I reveal the tremendous emotional impact that Colette’s diagnosis had on our family. “When children are stricken with cancer you fight for their lives. Your heart grows cold at the thought that they might die. The battle you wage is equal to all the world wars that have ever been fought. To see children clinging to their mother and father for life, to gaze into their eyes and see hope dwindling… to feel their confusion when words can no longer be uttered… to watch as trust, the very bond that glues them to our hips, slowly slips away. It is at these moments that you wish you had never been born, never to bear witness to such cruelty. As parents, we believed intuitively that something in the environment triggered our daughter’s cancer.”

Today, we have made tremendous progress thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences which in 1998 established eight Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers to explore ways to reduce children’s health risks from environmental factors.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a longtime colleague and founding member of Healthy Child Healthy World, was one the investigators to receive a grant to establish one of these centers at Mt. Sinai Medical College in New York. Recently I had the opportunity to get his viewpoint on the progress being made towards prevention.


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