77,111 cases of cancer in kids identified between 1978 and 1997 in 15 European countries were analyzed in the study. According to the results, there was an increase by an average of 1.1% a year in the number of cancer cases in children under the age of 14.
Majority of the childhood cancers like brain tumors, testicular cancer, leukemia, kidney cancer and soft tissue sarcoma (cancer of connective tissue) showed an increase in the number of cases. However, no increase was noted in bone cancer, liver cancer or retinoblastoma. The factors considered responsible for this rise are the tendency of later parenthood, heavier birth-weights and lower infant mortality rates.
The study is published in the European Journal of Cancer.
The study's authors, from France, Germany and Italy, said: "The increased incidence can only partly be explained by changes in diagnostic methods and by registration artefacts. The magnitude of these increases suggest that other factors, eg, changes in lifestyle and in exposure to a variety of agents, have contributed to the increase in childhood cancer."
According to the researchers, there has been an increase in the rate in every consecutive 5-year period than the previous 5 years. In Europe, the rate has risen from 120 cases per million (1978) to 140 (1997).
Eva Steliarova-Foucher, a senior epidemiologist at the International Agency for Cancer Research in Lyon, France, and an author of the study, was quoted as saying: "The rise may be partly due to better detection but not wholly. Other studies have shown older mothers have an increased incidence of leukemia and certain other cancers in their children. Children are being born heavier and higher birthweight has been linked with cancers such as leukaemia, Wilm's tumour [kidney cancer] and neuroblastoma."
Jamie Page, of the Cancer Prevention and Education Trust, said suspicion had fallen on environmental toxins as potential causes of childhood cancer, including pesticides, and phthalates in plastics. "Cancer is not entirely a disease of ageing," he said. "It is misleading when the medical establishment tell us that. We need to put chemicals on the agenda."
Bruce Morland, paediatric oncologist at Birmingham Children's hospital and a scientist with Cancer Research UK, said: "There is a lot of interest in a possible environmental link but the sad thing is that we have been unable to pinpoint any one factor."
Geoff Thaxter, director of services at CLIC Sargent, the children's cancer charity, said: "This statistical analysis does suggest an increase in children's cancer and although part of this can be explained by improved registration, that is clearly not the full picture."