Andrew Nikiforuk’s Review of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, written by Devra Davis, PhD, MPH.
In 1936, the world’s cancer experts assembled in Brussels to talk shop. The gathering heard a lot about workshop hazards and environmental toxins. A British scientist, who had studied identical twins, argued that cancer wasn’t inherited, but mostly the product of early chemical exposures in life. A meticulous Argentine showed how sunlight combined with hydrocarbons could sprout tumours on rats. Others explained how regular exposure to the hormone estrogen prompted male rodents to grow unseemly breasts. Everyone agreed that arsenic and benzene were workplace killers, too.
Since then, the cancer establishment has retreated from the truth faster than Canada’s commitment to a greener country. What began as sincere investigation into the economic root causes of a complex set of 200 different diseases quickly degenerated into a single-minded focus on treatments after the Second World War, argues Devra Davis, one of North America’s sharpest epidemiologists (her previous book, When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, was a finalist for the National Book Award).
In the process, industry and its propaganda hit men have used every opportunity to discredit, dismiss or disparage information on cancer hazards in the workplace or at home. So let me warn comfortable readers here and now. This courageous and altogether horrible book is about as unsettling as it can get. It painstakingly documents such a persistently foul pattern of deceit and denial that I often wanted to throw it against a wall and scream.
Furthermore, Davis’s hair-raising investigation – in what is easily the most important science book of the year – will rob you of any lingering, Disney-like fantasies you might have entertained about the nobility of cancer fundraising campaigns. And if you have lost a relative or friend to a malignant tumour (odds are you have), Davis will make you weep again, knowing that fraud and outright criminal neglect have turned a 40-year-long medical war into a questionable $70-billion charade.
Even Davis can’t hide her own disbelief at times: “Astonishing alliances between naive or far too clever academics and folks with major economic interests in selling potentially cancerous materials have kept us from figuring out whether or not many modern products affect our chances of developing cancer.” She then diligently documents, for example, how some of the world’s most prominent cancer researchers, such as the late Sir Richard Doll, the epidemiologist who was instrumental in linking smoking to health problems, secretly worked for chemical firms without disclosing these ties when publishing studies.
Davis, a modern scientist committed to moral clarity, knows her stuff and then some. After decades of front-line battles against air polluters, she now heads the world’s first Centre on Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She too has smelled and felt cancer firsthand, having lost two parents and many friends, including the comic Andrea Martin*, to the disease. She shines, in short, with a burning indignation about the abuse of power in medicine.
Her angry history of the way free and open discourse on cancers in the workplace has become as elusive as meaningful political debates reveals the rot with the bluntness of a chemo treatment. When men who bottled liquid lead as a gasoline additive in the 1920s started to drop like flies, General Motors blamed the workers and called lead a “natural contaminant.” When dye-makers at DuPont got bladder cancer from working with benzidine in the 1930s, the company, like an errant spouse, first denied the findings. Then they refused to record cases. Finally, they suppressed or delayed publishing the results.
After inhaling tar and poisonous fumes from coke ovens, black steel workers succumbed to waves of lung cancer in the 1950s. Yet industry argued that blacks were just more vulnerable to lung-consuming tumours. It took an enterprising study of dying Mormon coke-oven workers to challenge the lie. Damning studies on the health of asbestos workers couldn’t find a home in the 1930s, and to this day, Canada shamefully remains an exporter of the lung destroyer.
Benzene, a true-blue leukemia-maker that can cause workers to bleed out, has been the subject of 100 years of deceit and denial. When Myron Mehlman, a toxicologist with Mobil Oil, told Japanese officials in 1989 that gasoline with 5-per-cent benzene was damned dangerous and shouldn’t be sold, the company fired him. Davis reports that ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell have invested $27-million in China to “contradict earlier claims that link exposure to low- and mid-levels of benzene to cancers and other diseases.”
In 1986, researcher William Fayerweather put together a computerized system for tracking the health of every worker at DuPont’s chemical plants. Davis found that “neither he nor his system any longer work for DuPont.” She reports that men and women who produced computer chips for IBM are now dying young from cancers of the breast, bone marrow and kidney.
While China now leads a global economic boom, it’s also exploring new opportunities for cancer. Even its secretive, Ottawa-like government now concedes that the country’s industries use the nation’s rivers as industrial urinals. Not surprisingly, China now lists cancer as its number-one killer.
Many of Davis’s findings simply stunned me. Consider the invasion of computerized imaging technology (CT scans) in modern medicine. Since its invention in the 1970s, CT scanning has become a $100-billion industry that creates nifty three-dimensional images, yet exposes patients to radiation. CT scans have become such a favoured technology that one in every three scans recommended for children is probably unnecessary.
In the last 25 years, the amount of radiation zapping North Americans from scanning and the like has increased fivefold. Now ponder this stunner: “Modern America’s annual exposure to radiation from diagnostic machines is equal to that released by a nuclear accident that spewed the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshimas across much of Russia and Eastern Europe.” Most physicians don’t know that a typical CT scan equals 400 chest X-rays. A group of researchers at Yale now estimate that radiation from CT scans of the head and abdomen will kill 2,500 people a year.
Davis also presents some disturbing data on aspartame, cellphones and Ritalin. Armed with what a prominent toxicologist would later describe as “uninterpretable and worthless” studies on aspartame, Donald Rumsfeld, then CEO of Searle & Co. (since acquired by Monsanto), used his formidable political contacts to gain government approval for the food additive in 1981. Yet the U.S. Air Force still reports that aspartame “can cause serious brain problems in pilots.” Despite whatever malarkey you might have read, cellphone users still have double the risk of brain cancer and folks under 18 years of age really shouldn’t be using them. Ritalin, the drug to slow kids down, can rearrange an individual’s chromosomes, yet in some school districts more than 10 per cent of the students are now on the drug. As Davis notes, “Highly profitable industries have no incentive to ask whether the products on which they depend may have adverse consequences.”
Each and every chapter in this book offers a uncomfortable revelation. Pioneering research on the deadly effects of tobacco and environmental hormones by the Nazis secretly found its way to many of U.S. corporations producing the same questionable goods. The American Cancer Society spends less than 10 per cent of its billion-dollar budget on independent studies. The great Wilhelm Hueper, the bold pathologist who wrote the book on “occupational tumours,” suffered one indignity after another for simply reporting the dangers of uranium mining. And on it goes.
So, the strange reality of cancer fighting truly reads like one of Kafka’s nightmares. Most of the 100,000 chemicals commonly used in commerce have not been tested. Their proliferation in the workplace has created a cancer epidemic and a medical-business industry to treat it. Given the toxic nature of many cancer treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy, Davis claims that cancer researchers and cancer physicians are dying in record numbers.
Davis not only sheds light on this darkness, she also opens many hopeful doors. She celebrates tough, rural, blue-collar mothers who have taken on the companies that have riddled their children with cancer-makers. And she welcomes groups such as Health Care Without Harm, a novel coalition focused on getting toxic products out of hospitals.
But her remarkable and disturbing history ultimately illuminates another hidden hydrocarbon holocaust. Our frightful addiction to fossil fuels has not only fouled the atmosphere but given us a wealth of chemicals, plastics and technologies that increasingly undoes the health of millions with cancers. It, too, has given us rich armies of PR men employing “the same expert public relations strategies that kept us tied in knots on tobacco.”
Davis knows that changing medical perspectives and priorities, from treatment to prevention, will be an enormous task. But she does not despair. In fact she ends her book with a simple Talmudic story. Faced with a complicated assignment, a group of workers rhyme off the usual excuses: They haven’t got the tools or they haven’t got the energy. But a good rabbi (sounding much like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) sets them straight: “It is not for you to complete the task,” he says. “But you must begin.”
Davis’s masterful book has shown us why we must begin rethinking cancer research and treatment now for our children’s sake.