Devra Davis’s The Secret History of the War on Cancer is getting some wonderful, well-deserved reviews. Davis is a well-known an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. Robin Mejia, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writes

The book is a must-read for those concerned about their own health or that of their loved ones. It’s also fascinating.

Mejia is right – the book is filled with fascinating historical material, linked with a focus on cancer prevention right now. To Davis, this means more than just promoting healthier lifestyles, but addressing the effects of the many chemicals we’re exposed to every day.

Davis cites two major factors in a cancer death toll that’s far higher than it should be: regulatory inaction and industry opposition to good science. Here’s Barron H. Lerner’s summary of Davis’s argument for Slate:

After President Richard M. Nixon formally declared war on cancer in 1971, the resulting programs contained neither funding of research into prevention of the disease nor environmental cleanup strategies.

That was in large part due to the role of the tobacco and chemical industries, according to Davis. As has now been extensively documented, most recently by historian Allan M. Brandt in The Cigarette Century, American tobacco companies spent millions of dollars over decades to deliberately deceive the public about the carcinogenic potential of cigarettes. Essentially the same process, Davis says, has occurred in the world of chemicals. There is now a substantial body of evidence, obtained through research funded outside the war on cancer, suggesting that industry has managed to obfuscate the carcinogenic dangers of chemical and other toxic waste. The Secret History provides a thorough, systematic account of these misdeeds.

For example, data have shown that residents of certain Louisiana Delta towns have three times the amount of cancer-causing dioxin in their blood than average Americans and that local children have 10 times the rate of neuoroblastoma, a rare brain tumor. Yet, Davis writes, chemical companies in the region have consistently “undermine[d] reports on the dangers of vinyl chloride, benzene, asbestos and other petrochemical residues for workers, their families and communities.” Similarly, those who worked at or lived near the Clairton Coke Works of Western Pennsylvania after World War II had alarmingly high rates of lung cancer. Once again, industry—in this case the coke manufacturers— made sure that the news wouldn’t get out. Davis describes her own secret meetings with a former monitor of the coke plants, who documented toxic levels of chemicals in the local drinking water and air—findings that were later squelched by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Davis ultimately argues that in their doubt-sowing public-relations efforts, the chemical industry and others have cleverly manipulated the science of epidemiology, the study of health and disease among populations. Epidemiologists would be the first to admit that it is truly difficult to establish definitive proof that a given hazard causes a given cancer. But scientists and spokespeople for the chemical industries have gone further, using epidemiology’s penchant for caveat to attempt to nullify a lot of very convincing data. Those who have accepted money from industry to weigh in have even included the heroes of epidemiology, such as Richard Doll, who had earlier been one of the first investigators to prove the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Doll, Davis writes, was a “highly paid consultant” for Monsanto and Dow Chemical and the Chemical Manufacturers Association. She believes he wrote reports that, among other things, minimized the connection of vinyl chloride to certain brain and liver cancers.

Industry efforts to manufacture uncertainty are nothing new to our regular readers. Davis provides an important service by pulling together information on a range of substances, making it relevant to today’s readers (who have probably all known someone diagnosed with cancer, if not battled it themselves), and offering prevention-focused recommendations.

In her latest Bloomberg/Washington Post column, Cindy Skrzycki reports:

The hard work of identifying environmental factors that may lead to cancer is often not undertaken, Davis writes. Or the results of research are ignored, dismissed as lacking proof, or treated as a “trade secret” by the government and manufacturers.

Not enough attention is being paid, she says, to the effects of small doses of chemicals that, when taken together, may put people at risk.

Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at Pitt’s cancer institute, raises a red flag on children using cellphones or bubble baths containing 1,4-Dioxane, a foaming agent that is banned in Europe because it has been linked to cancer in animals. She cautions people of all ages to avoid home insulation containing asbestos, to limit CT scans and to shun the use of aspartame.

“It’s death by a 1,000 cuts for us and our children from these low-level toxins,” she said.

“Unusual cancers” are popping up in younger people, she said, with a growing number of cases of childhood leukemia and brain and kidney cancer. Ten percent of the nation’s 10 million cancer survivors are younger than 40.

Regulators should look at the combined risks of small amounts of hazardous substances and find safer alternatives, Davis argues. She would let companies tell what they learned about the hazards of their products from their own research, in exchange for amnesty from legal liability.

It was a tremendous effort on the part of many scientists to overcome the tobacco companies’ refusal to acknowledge the science (some of it their own work) linking smoking to lung cancer, but it was worth fighting for – in fact, the CDC named “recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard” one of the nation’s Ten Great Public Health Achievements. Identifying and eliminating the many other carcinogens from our homes and workplaces will also be an uphill struggle, but very much worth the effort.

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