Risk factors for acute leukemia in children: a review

Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Jan;115(1):138-45. doi: 10.1289/ehp.9023.


Although overall incidence is rare, leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer. It accounts for 30% of all cancers diagnosed in children younger than 15 years. Within this population, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) occurs approximately five times more frequently than acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and accounts for approximately 78% of all childhood leukemia diagnoses. Epidemiologic studies of acute leukemias in children have examined possible risk factors, including genetic, infectious, and environmental, in an attempt to determine etiology. Only one environmental risk factor (ionizing radiation) has been significantly linked to ALL or AML. Most environmental risk factors have been found to be weakly and inconsistently associated with either form of acute childhood leukemia. Our review focuses on the demographics of childhood leukemia and the risk factors that have been associated with the development of childhood ALL or AML. The environmental risk factors discussed include ionizing radiation, non-ionizing radiation, hydrocarbons, pesticides, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and illicit drug use. Knowledge of these particular risk factors can be used to support measures to reduce potentially harmful exposures and decrease the risk of disease. We also review genetic and infectious risk factors and other variables, including maternal reproductive history and birth characteristics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Communicable Diseases / complications
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / etiology*
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / etiology*
  • Risk Factors