Research: A New Map for Children’s Cancer in Alberta

Paul Villeneuve has spent years studying how environmental factors impact health. (Luther Caverly Photo)

Paul Villeneuve wants to navigate the dark world of cancer with a new kind of map.

Developed as a surveillance tool, this map will display a yearly geographic distribution of pollutants alongside incidents of children’s cancer in Alberta — the kind of data that policy-makers need to devise regulations limiting exposure to harmful chemicals.

Villeneuve, a member of Carleton’s Health Sciences Department, is a prolific contributor to the field of epidemiology who has long studied how environmental factors can impact health. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers.

“As an epidemiologist, I want to identify which diseases are linked to environmental carcinogens,” he says. “As a biostatistician, I offer input on analyzing data and on issues with a study’s design.”

Last fall, Alberta’s provincial research council approved an initial level of funding for the map, which could receive another $1 million.

The project is led by Villeneuve’s co-investigator at the University of Alberta, Alvaro Osornio-Vargas, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and founding member of the International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment, which has a mission of protecting children from environmental toxins.

“We would develop the tool during the first three years of the study,” said Osornio-Vargas. “The last two years would be for polishing it with users — government workers, policy writers and researchers.”

Villeneuve and Osornio-Vargas have worked together for five years to investigate childhood health outcomes, primarily in Alberta, such as low birth rates, pre-term births and cancers. Almost half of Canada’s industrial chemical emissions between 2002 and 2010 stemmed from manufacturing and just under a third came from the mining, oil and gas extraction industries.

With information extracted from datasets, the researchers look at different factors that exist in the same geographic location at the same time. This spatial co-location observes known carcinogens released from dissemination areas in relation to lung cancer and leukemia cases in children.

This project follows their previous study, funded by the Cancer Research Society and Read for the Cure, to identify the relationship between childhood cancer and industry emissions across the country.

Villeneuve has examined a long list of disease risk factors in Canada over the last 20 years. These have included radon, gas and diesel emissions, electric and magnetic fields and other environmental carcinogens. He also researches the health benefits of green space in urban areas, although the negative health effects of chemical emissions and occupational carcinogens are more prevalent in environmental epidemiology.

He has investigated the relationship between exposure to electric and magnetic fields among electric utility workers, the link between brominated flame retardants and breast cancer, and he recently published a paper linking colorectal cancer to exposure to diesel emissions.

As a professional statistician, Villeneuve’s data expertise complements his research into the incidence and distribution of disease. Research findings as both an epidemiologist and a biostatistician contribute a broader health research perspective to the control and prevention of sicknesses.

Epidemiology researchers who work under Villeneuve deal with geographic information systems (GIS) and statistics programming, and the four graduate students and two undergrads in his lab are encouraged to develop a wider skill base in their own health research.

Over the course of 2015, Villeneuve received approvals for six grant applications for his numerous research projects. The surveillance tool project will undergo a third evaluation in late February to address reviewers’ comments and hopefully receive final approval.

This entry was written by Joseph Mathieu and posted in the issue. Bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

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