In the town of McFarland, Calif., 21 children have developed cancer since 1975.
Nine are dead.
In 1985, state officials came to town to find out why McFarland's kids get cancer at three times the national average. They left six years later without an answer.
But Marion Moses, a physician and activist with the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco, has a theory about what is behind the McFarland cancers.
"I was astounded, when I went down there, at the cavalier use of these enormously toxic pesticides,'' Dr. Moses says. ``These children are literally living among the chemicals.''
Farmers spray millions of pounds of pesticides on the fields around McFarland each year. Yet for all the effort of Dr. Moses's team, no one has ever been able to prove that children are harmed by pesticides in the environment.
Researchers have found elevated pesticide concentrations in and around farm homes, and discovered that children whose parents work with pesticides are more likely to suffer leukemia, brain cancer and other afflictions. But to the great frustration of advocates and concerned parents, nobody has ever been able to draw a direct line connecting pesticides and children's cancer.
"There is data there,'' Dr. Moses says. ``The problem is, it's not sock-it-to-me data.''
There are just hints, disturbing clues, that something in the environment must be hurting children.
Nationally, acute lymphoblastic leukemia is up 10.7 percent over the past two decades, pediatrician Philip Landrigan said recently at a meeting sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. Brain cancer is up 30 percent. Osteogenic sarcoma -- a type of bone cancer -- has gone up 50 percent, and testicular cancer is up 60 percent in men under 30.
"No one can tell us why this is happening,'' EPA administrator Carol Browner says.
Some evidence points to pesticides.
A study in Los Angeles found that a child's risk of leukemia increased three to nine times if at least one parent used pesticides in the home or garden. In a Baltimore study, children with brain cancer were 2.3 times more likely than healthy children to have been exposed to pesticides at home.
In total, nine studies reviewed by National Cancer Institute epidemiologist Shelia Hoar Zahm found a statistically significant increase in brain cancer correlated with pesticide exposure. But Dr. Zahm also discovered five studies that found a less-than-significant increase, and three studies that found nothing at all.
Researchers have also found correlations between pesticides and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma and Hodgkin's disease.
In western Minnesota, epidemiologist Vincent Garry found an elevated rate of birth defects among children born to licensed pesticide appliers.
"In western Minnesota they use a lot of fungicides on the wheat,'' Garry says.
But that doesn't mean fungicides are causing the additional birth defects. More research needs to be done to find out why being born to a pesticide applier in western Minnesota gives a child a two to three times greater chance of having birth defects.
"What we're seeing are good correlations,'' Garry says. "But correlation and cause are two different things.''
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