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Expert: Modern Chemicals Brought Cancer Epidemic

First tobacco. Then asbestos. Now we're awash in a sea of new poisons.

By Pamela Weintraub
Nov 8, 2007 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:38 AM


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For those involved in the ongoing drama of cancer research, a pressing mystery remains: While treatments are better and survival times longer, there are far more newly diagnosed cancers than ever before. One reason for the upsurge, say experts, is a revolution in imaging. From MRI scans to digital mammograms, our high-tech wizardry makes tumors visible at ever smaller stages, so that we’re catching some that previously would not have come to light at all. Now comes Devra Davis, a preeminent cancer epidemiologist and environmentalist, to challenge that notion. The increase in cancer is real, she says, caused in large part by the daily allotment of poison that is the price of admission to our 21st-century world.

Davis’s new book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer (Basic Books, $27.50), is a wake-up call for all those who have accepted the poisons of our age of plenty without a blink. She explains, in detail, the long and ugly fight against known cancer-causing agents, including asbestos, benzene, vinyl chloride, and tobacco. She also ticks off evidence against the many potential carcinogens plaguing us still: the ADD drug Ritalin; aspartame, the sugar substitute used in diet drinks and foods; and untold pesticides, cleaning agents, and cosmetics found frequently in our homes. Even tests conducted routinely in emergency rooms, like CT scans of the chest, deliver as much radiation as 400 X-rays, says Davis.

Skeptics will point out that the evidence against many of these potential risks is meager. But most of the real evidence may never come to light, Davis argues, because scientists have been strong-armed into silence by companies who fund their work, and because, as a condition of any settlement, lawyers have kept the human evidence sealed. To keep us in the dark, she says, industry experts are framing the debate about radiation and chemicals using the same terms and PR strategies they used with tobacco.

Davis envisions a better way to live: Reduced use of cosmetic pesticides, fewer grooming and cleaning agents that pollute, and greener, cleaner buildings and communities. “If we insist on having proof that harm has happened before we move to prevent or control damage, we are dooming future generations,” she writes.

One could take Davis, who is the director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, to task on the same grounds used by critics against Rachel Carson, whose book, Silent Spring, launched the modern environmental movement: Davis unabashedly makes the case against toxins and their health toll without presenting the other point of view. By design, this is not a balanced account. But the other side’s case has been stated and restated many times. The Secret History of the War on Cancer challenges the heart of that case.

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