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Children: Canaries for Cancer

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Miners used to take canaries down into the mines to serve as living indicators of the presence of deadly gases

Miners used to take canaries down into the mines to serve as living indicators of the presence of deadly gases. When these canaries died, the miners knew they had to leave their mine or they would be the next to die.

Our children are contemporary "canaries" for detecting cancer in the general population. Excluding work-related exposure, children are more susceptible and more exposed to carcinogens and toxins than adults. We have created an environment in which many children die of cancer before they are old enough to stand up and take steps to save themselves.

Currently the leading cause of death for children over the age of five is cancer. In about 20 per cent of cases pre-cancerous changes start before conception. This is because some hereditary cancers require two mutations. The first one occurs in the parent before conception and does not necessarily lead to the development of cancer in the parent. The second occurs in the offspring after conception and leads to a proliferation of cancer. Of course most childhood cancers are not caused by genetic changes alone. The carcinogens that penetrate the placenta and/or a child's immune defences are even more ominous. Environmental factors may be responsible for as much as 80 percent of childhood cancers.

Most Vulnerable

The child's immature organ systems are far more vulnerable to carcinogens and pathogens than those of an adult. This is partially by design. For example, a child's gastrointestinal system is more permeable because it has to allow entry of the large immune molecules from a mother's milk. Pathogens and carcinogens take advantage of this and sneak in as well. Similarly, an immature blood-brain barrier is less competent in protecting the brain from invasion by various carcinogens and harmful elements. (Children have a relatively high occurrence of brain cancer.)

Children's faster rate of cell division increases the probability of the proliferation and manifestation of genetic abnormalities. In addition, their higher metabolism requires a comparatively higher intake of water, food and oxygen. All of these are now more or less contaminated. Also, children have a greater proportion of adipose tissue (fat), which stores toxins and carcinogens. These are released into the circulation sooner or later.

Furthermore, a child's immune system has been well designed to handle the harmful microbial agents that have been around for millions of years. The immune system actually becomes stronger, more resilient and effective after each battle with microbes. However, it is overwhelmed and weakened by insults from chemicals, such as indoor pollutants. These chemicals have been identified as a major cause of cancer, along with radon and pesticides on food.

We like to keep our children safe, warm and clean. So we keep them indoors and liberally use antibacterial agents designed to kill germs. We redecorate, paint and put down new carpets that out-gas harmful chemicals and carcinogens. We close the doors and windows and install air-conditioning to re-circulate the air, now full of toxins.

Indoor Pollutants

The concentration of indoor pollutants is three to 70 times higher than that of outdoor pollutants. Furthermore, children spend their time closer to the floor where the concentration of carcinogens is higher.

One of the main concerns are the chemicals contained in the out-gassing from cleaning agents, laundry detergents, cosmetic products, furnaces and building and car manufacturing materials. These enter the circulation via the respiratory system. Cleaning agents are also absorbed by the skin or ingested from their residues on counters, eating utensils or other objects. Basically if a child inhales it, ingests it, licks it, wears it, touches it, it may be absorbed and increase the load on the child's defences.

If you think a little bit is all right, consider the fact that we are exposed to 80,000 various chemicals. Cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning substances, analgesics, plants and cough preparations have been consistently at the top of the list of pediatric exposures. For those who think that household chemicals are "not so bad," think again. More children die of acute poisoning from household chemicals than you would think.

There are a number of ways to reduce a child's exposure.

  1. All-purpose spray cleaner:
    • 1 tsp borax, 2 Tbsp vinegar, 2 cups hot water
    • Baking soda deodorizes and acts as a mild abrasive
    • Pumice removes stains, polishes
    • Wood furniture cleaner: 1/2 tsp olive oil, 1/4 cup vinegar or lemon juice
    • Club soda is an all-purpose spot remover
    • Use rugs that are made of cotton, cotton/wool blend, sheepskin or unmothproofed wool without jute or latex backing.
    • Use hardwood flooring, tile and natural linoleum.
  2. Additional suggestions:
    • open your windows for ventilation (install bathroom ventilation to the outside)
    • use an ion generator, electrostatic precipitator or an effective air filter for indoor cleaning
    • use and maintain an effective air filter in a forced-air heating system
    • keep humidity below 40 per cent
    • vacuum your mattress regularly
    • use a central vacuuming system vented to the outside
    • use a good quality water filter
    • reduce the exhaust from an attached garage and vehicles
    • bring in plants that reduce toxic gases
  3. Eliminate:
    • old stored paints, solvents, newspapers
    • various unusual foul odors or sources of smoke in your house
    • pesticides or herbicides in your neighborhood
    • products used as aerosol propellants
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