Results from a study conducted in southern Taiwan suggest a possible link between living in an area with high exposure to airborne petrochemicals (derivatives of petroleum or natural gas) and risk of developing leukemia. These results were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. There are many different types of leukemia, depending upon which specific blood cells are affected. Each leukemia has different disease characteristics and therefore different treatment options.

When leukemia occurs, the body produces large numbers of abnormal or immature blood cells. Leukemia cells differ from normal blood cells in appearance and behavior; they are often unable to perform their intended functions.

Most leukemias occur in white blood cells and are classified as either myelocytic or lymphocytic, depending on which type of white blood cell is affected. Leukemia is further classified by how fast the disease develops. When leukemia develops quickly and is composed of immature cells that do not properly mature, it is called acute leukemia. When leukemia is referred to as chronic, the cells are more mature and abnormal cells accumulate less rapidly.

Risk factors for leukemia vary by type of leukemia, but include factors such as radiation exposure, chemotherapy, family history, smoking, and exposure to certain chemicals.

Some studies have suggested that workers at petroleum refineries or other petrochemical plants may have an increased risk of leukemia. This has prompted interest in the effects of living near a petrochemical plant. The few studies that have addressed residential petrochemical exposure have not reported an increased risk of leukemia.

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To explore the relationship between residential petrochemical exposure and risk of leukemia, researchers conducted a study in southern Taiwan. The area that was studied has four petrochemical plants. Concentrations of petrochemicals in this area appear to be higher than concentrations in industrialized areas of the U.S.

The study enrolled 171 individuals with leukemia and 410 individuals without leukemia. All study participants were under the age of 30. Among study participants under the age of 20, acute lymphocytic leukemia was the most common type of leukemia. Among study participants between the ages of 20 and 29, leukemia cases were evenly divided among acute lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, and chronic myeloid leukemia.

For each study participant, residential petrochemical exposure was estimated based on duration of stay at each place of residence, distance of each residence from petrochemical plants, monthly prevailing wind direction, and petrochemical pollution sources.

Among study participants under the age of 20, there was no link between increasing residential petrochemical exposure and risk of leukemia. Among study participants between the ages of 20 and 29, increasing residential petrochemical exposure did increase the risk of leukemia.

The researchers conclude that higher levels of residential petrochemical exposure appeared to increase the risk of developing leukemia among individuals between the ages of 20 and 29 years, but did not appear to affect risk among children.

Reference: Yu C-L, Wang S-F, Pan P-C et al. Residential Exposure to Petrochemical and the Risk of Leukemia: Using Geographic Information System Tools to Estimate Individual-level Residential Exposure. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2006;164:200-207.

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