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The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. Basic Books 2007.

NOTE: Exerpt from Wikipedia. The ‘War on Cancer’ began with the National Cancer Act of 1971, a United States federal law. The act was intended “to amend the Public Health Service Act so as to strengthen the National Cancer Institute in order to more effectively carry out the national effort against cancer”. It was signed into law by then U.S. President Richard Nixon on December 23, 1971.

For more than a century, the pollution of our air and water has been routine, business as usual. As outlined in The Polluters, reviewed here, the mantra of big business has been “Spill, Study and Stall”. Governments on every level have enabled the poisoning of our land, turning a blind eye to infractions and failing to protect citizens from even the worst abuses of polluters. Additionally, we live in a veritable sea of synthetic estrogens and other hormones and are routinely exposed to materials that never previously existed, with more than 80,000 chemicals in widespread use. Fewer than 1,000 have been tested for toxicity and how these chemicals interact is an open question.

There are prices to be paid for the convenience of unbridled polluting and the underregulation and inadequate testing of new potential toxins. One price is cancer. Countless people pay for pollution of underregulated workplaces and poisoned air and water with their lives.

The connection between our environment and cancer has long been recognised. At a 1936 International Congress of cancer researchers, reports showed that many widely used agents were known to be cancerous for humans, including ultraviolet and x-ray radiation, arsenic, benzene, asbestos, synthetic dyes and hormones. Researchers reported that excessive sunbathing could lead to skin cancer and that exposure to estrogen could produce breast tumors.

Yet just as there has been a widespread failure to limit pollution, curbing the known causes of cancer has also been slow. Although researchers reported in 1936 that excessive sunbathing could lead to skin cancer and that exposure to estrogen could produce breast tumors, the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. government did not formally list both estrogen and ultraviolet light as definite causes of human cancer until 2002!

Since World War II, information on the cancer hazards of the workplace and the environment has typically been discredited, dismissed, or disparaged. The tobacco companies’ long campaign to obscure findings on the dangers of cigarettes was successful for decades and served as a model for other industries to follow in a combination of deceptive advertising, sophisticated scientific spin and strongarm politics. Scientists who speak out have often been targets for funding cuts and career derailment.

A revolving-door policy has often seen regulators and cancer researchers move in and out of cancer-causing industries. Some early leaders of the American Cancer Society, for example, left to work for the tobacco industry. Distinguished researcher Sir Richard Doll discredited the findings of other scientists without revealing that he was on the payroll of the chemical industry for years. The life-saving test for cervical cancer, the Pap smear, was not put into widespread use for more than a decade because of fears that it would undermine the private practice of medicine.

To this day, the Cancer Society speaks little about reining in the causes of cancer, or at best, concentrates on personal lifestyle choices rather than broader exposures to toxins. It’s all about the cure! Run for cure! Donate for the cure! Wear a pink ribbon for the cure! When quite obviously, it would be better not to get cancer in the first place.

Devra Davis, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and a professor of epidemiology. In more than 450 pages, she looks at how we have failed to address the causes of cancer. Davis writes “I believe that if we had acted on what has long been known about the industrial and environmental causes of cancer when this war first began, at least a million and a half lives could have been spared, a huge casualty rate that those who have managed the war on cancer must answer for.”

Secret History is by no means a light read, but it is often eye-opening and interesting.

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