Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Secret History of the War on Cancer, by Devra Davis

The book I and likely many others have been waiting for. The book that asks why the focus on cancer has so much been on cure and so little on prevention. The book that asks why we know so little about the environmental basis for cancers.

Davis, an epidemiologist, actually thought of this book many years ago, but was persuaded to set the idea aside or risk her own career. Now that she is established and at less risk she has laid it all out for us: it is no accident that we don't know much about the environmental causes of cancer.

Yet it wasn't always so. Davis points out that in the early part of this century, into the 1930s, a great deal was already known about how substances like asbestos and professions like coal mining are directly linked to cancer. Even more astonishing, companies that made or mined cancer-causing agents freely admitted the connection. And much of what we believe is new information about many chemicals was known then. So why were we in the dark for so long?

The scene has changed. Hiding behind "trade secrets", companies routinely deny any knowledge of the harm their products do, even when their own investigators have proven otherwise. Most significantly, the industries responsible for so much cancer - through their pollution of the air, the water, our food, our land - have learned an effective way to delay any real action: they sow the seeds of doubt. We saw it in the tobacco companies. We see it now in the global warming deniers. They give the impression that they are all over this, that they want the answers as much as we do - to prove it, they fund "further studies". But of course nothing can be done until those studies are complete.

And they have it easy. In this world, nobody is safe from man-made contamination of the environment. It is impossible to determine without a doubt exactly which product or exposure caused cancer in a particular person. Worse, courts have tightened the burden of proof requirements so that a plaintiff has to show overwhelming evidence of causation by a particular agent. It's easy for the accused to point out that we live in a chemical soup so who can honestly claim this or that exposure was the one that caused the cancer?

Davis lays out the case against the corporations and the colluding government agencies with compelling evidence. She further calls for an end to "further study". We know enough, she said. The time to act is long overdue. I can only hope enough people with power hear her.

book rating: 9 out of 10

No comments: