The Secret History of the War on Cancer

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Children shouldn't use cellphones. No one should drink diet sodas sweetened with aspartame. And think twice before getting X-rayed with a CAT scan except in a bona fide life-threatening emergency. That's just some of the precautionary advice that epidemiologist Devra Davis, who runs the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, delivers in her new book, "The Secret History of the War on Cancer."

Davis, who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and formerly served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, argues that the United States' $40 billion "war on cancer" has focused far too much on treatment, and not nearly enough on prevention. There's a lot of blame to go around here, and Davis serves it to up to the scientific community, the government, polluting industries and even cancer advocacy groups. For instance, in the late '60s, three years after the surgeon general declared that smoking causes cancer, the United States spent $30 million of taxpayer money to create a safer cigarette, essentially doing the tobacco companies' research and development for them. Needless to say, this effort failed, but it succeeded in giving the tobacco companies cover, assuring smokers that a safer cigarette was just around the corner.

Davis argues that again and again, from tobacco to benzene to asbestos, the profit motive has trumped concerns about public health, delaying, sometimes for decades, the containment of avoidable hazards. And, as in the current scientific "debate" about global warming, the legitimate need for ongoing scientific research about many possible carcinogens has been exploited by industry to promote the idea that there's really no need to worry.

In "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," we meet one of the foremost epidemiologists of the 20th century, who is revealed after his death to have been on the take from Monsanto to the tune of $1,500 a day, and we visit the site of former towns that have literally disappeared, like Times Beach, Mo., which since being declared a toxic waste site, has been incinerated, reduced to some grass, geraniums and tulips -- the only signs that anyone ever once lived there.

Yet, traversing this grim territory, Davis remains optimistic that much more can be done to prevent cancer. She's heartened by the work of advocacy groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Breast Cancer Action, which asks that during this month of Breast Cancer Awareness you "think before you pink," since some of the companies jumping on the breast cancer awareness bandwagon actually make products that may contribute to the disease. And Davis is hopeful that the green revolution in everything from architecture to home-cleaning products to fashion to healthcare will not only help save the earth but will actually reduce all our toxic body burdens.

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