The Secret History of the War on Cancer
Devra Davis’ thorough and well-researched book on what really causes cancer.
The book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis showcases the problems caused by a profound lack of regulations on environmental toxins in the past century. I’ve used this information in my grade 12 Challenge and Change in Society class which focuses on human behaviour and, in this case, the question: “Why do we continue to do things that bring us long-term harm?”. Every fact here is in Davis’ book, unfortunately I didn’t include page numbers after each bit of information.
A Synopsis: The Secret History of the War on Cancer — Devra Davis, 2007
- In the past 50 years, cancer has increased dramatically, and it can’t all be explained by smoking, improved diagnoses, or aging.
- Could the fact that many of the leading figures in the war on cancer profited both from producing cancer-causing chemicals and from producing anti-cancer drugs have anything to do with the fact that both the incidence of cancer and its treatment options keep steadily increasing? She leans to the former concern.
- Many cancer victims might still be with us if the things eminent scientists knew about the causes of cancer in 1936 had entered mainstream medical practice.
- The National Academy of Sciences confirm that we have no public record of the toxicity of ¾ of the top 3,000 chemicals in use today.
Free Market Connections:
Under the Reagan Revolution, US leaders bragged of lessening the power of government across the board. The White House set up an ambitious program aimed at easing the burdens of regulations on corporations. Under this new policy, proposals to expand government control of anything, even cancer-causing agents in the environment, have little chance of survival. Since WWII, whenever and however information on the cancer hazards of the workplace and the environment has been generated, it has typically been discredited, dismissed, or disparaged. Products that are profitable are barred from external research in order to maintain a vague understanding of potential harm. Without solid knowledge of harm, manufacturers can claim ignorance and refuse any responsibility for the effects of their products.
* Less than 10% of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) budget goes towards independent research. Many of the leaders of the ACS and the National Cancer Institute have direct ties with the tobacco industry.
* Many studies on workplace causes of cancer, the dangers of medical hormones, and the cancer-causing properties of tobacco were published in the 1930s, but were buried by corporations.
From 2000 to 2006, the US has tripled the amount of asbestos products it imports from China, Brazil, Columbia and Mexico. Canada and the US are two of very few industrial countries that have not yet banned asbestos. Sarnia has the highest asbestos exposure ever recorded worldwide. The town also has five times the level of mesothelioma (asbestos related lung cancer) as the rest of the region.
US — Nazi Ties
EthylGemeinschaft, a German oil firm, that operated with slave labour during the holocaust, was owned by Standard Oil and General Motors. The US gave Germany the know-how to produce leaded gasoline and synthetic rubber in direct contravention of US War Department orders. Without the unique formula for making leaded gasoline, the Nazis could not have flown their planes or fueled their land vehicles.
Refusal to Disclose
In his book Propaganda, written in 1928, Edward Bernays argued that democracy depends on the successful control of public opinion (i.e. Chomsky’s theory of manufactured consent). “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” He was aware of connections between tobacco and cancer used by Germany, and largely discounted by the rest of the world. Tobacco is still a growth industry in China, India, and Latin America.
Several leaders in the efforts against cancer, including Sir Richard Doll of Oxford, secretly worked for the chemical industry for years and didn’t disclose these ties. Their research consistently shows many chemicals to be much less dangerous than independent research has found them to be.
When entire towns are contaminated, like Mossville and Reveilletown, Louisiana, the town is bought by the chemical companies, homes re-located, and each person who settled is made to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Robert Kehoe worked for Ethyl, GM, Standard Oil and other chemical companies under Kettering labs of the University of Cincinnati in the 1930s — the labs carried out studies on the hazards of…
- lead in gasoline (early workers kept dying; when they brought in fans to blow out the fumes, they lived longer but went insane)
- materials use to coat cooking surfaces of pots and pans
- residues of cancerous materials in paraffin coating in milk cartons
- manufacture of rubber
- many other major industrial chemicals
The result of any of this work is not released unless those funding it agree to release it. Worker health remains a matter that can be deemed a trade secret.
In 1895 German researchers found that men manufacturing synthetic dyes and solvents (aromatic amines) developed bladder cancer. In the 1934 Wilhelm Hueper warned DuPont of the connection, and they hired him to study the hazards further. (He also worked for the National Cancer Institute leading a section on environmental cancers, influencing Rachel Carson (Silent Spring).) He found that…
- chemicals workers used were brought home on their clothes and affected their entire families
- Kettinger labs conducted secret research on coal tar products and insisted foreign coal tar might cause cancer, but not American coal tar regardless of the increasing rates of scrotal tumours in American petrochemical workers.
- Rich people’s tumours differ from the poor due to different exposure to dustier trades and petroleum. (Black women have a much higher rate of death from breast cancer largely because they work in more dirty and dangerous jobs — like house cleaning.)
- One in ten smokers come down with lung cancer, but ten out of ten workers exposed to dyes for twenty years develop bladder cancer.
He published his findings just after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (1941, Occupational Tumors and Allied Diseases), so they got little attention. Then he worked to disclose how mining chromate ore and uranium, critical to the production of nuclear weapons (and energy), cause tumours in most workers and the government warned him he was “under investigation for disloyalty and treason.” He was officially barred from the NCI.
Hueper outlined four ways industry avoids focusing attention of cases of occupational cancer…
- feign blindness by refusing to see or record cases
- create negative evidence by only counting disease in workers who have been employed a short period of time and excluding from their records those with long-term exposure who are no long working or no longer alive.
- pack the study population with many workers who have no exposure to the agent, thereby diluting evidence of an effect
- suppress or delay publishing results
Germans created diethylstilbestrol (DES), the first synthetic estrogen, from coal tar. They added it to animal feed to fatten cows, pigs and chickens. Young boys who worked in the factories developed painful swollen breast. So they hired young girls — who ended up with breast cancer. From 1948 to 1972 DES was used to prevent miscarriages, but ended up creating children with serious problems, deformities, cancer, and sterility.
Meyron Mehlman, director of toxicology, was fired from Mobil Oil in 1989 after revealing that they hid what they knew about the dangers of benzene (in cigarettes, gasoline, and used for dry cleaning). In 2008, this company has allotted $27 million to an effort under way in China intended to prove the safety of their product. Some factories in China leak benzene directly into the rivers explaining that “many enterprises are built along rivers so they can dump the waste into water easily.”
Excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides pollute underground water. The contaminated water has directly affected soil, crops and food. Beyond cancer, rats exposed to just a single injection of some pesticides are more excitable and less focused than others, indicating a possible link with an increase of diagnosis of ADHD in children. On that note, children prescribed Ritalin for just three months show 3–4 times more genetic damage than before they started on the drug, compared with no increase in damage of children with ADHD not given Ritalin. Unhealthy cells show a major loss in the ability to repair themselves, which leads to an increased risk of cancer.
Rodents develop sprawling tumours following x-ray treatments. Mixing hydrocarbons (such as methane, propane, benzene, paraffin wax, naptha, polyethylene…) with either sunlight or radiation produce much worse cancer damage than either alone. CT scans are many times worse than regular x-rays.
People working with chlorine have five times more lung cancer than those without such exposure. Chlorine processing creates a highly toxic byproduct — dioxin. Production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) creates stunted fingers, dissolved bones, angiosarcoma, and genetic defects passed on to children.
Many plastics can distort the way the body produces hormones. Plastic dust mimics estrogen, which increases the chances of breast and reproductive cancers.
Cosmetics markets account for over $100 billion each year. Positively charged nitrogen in ammoniatames frizzy hair and makes it soft and shiny. Ethylene oxide and propylene oxide are pressurized to make oils and water mix. They dilute the eye-burning chemicals in shampoos by adding oxygen to make soap bubbly. American baby shampoos and bubble baths almost always have di-ethylene oxide, or 1,4-dioxane in them (also called PEG or polyethylene). This toxin causes cancer in minute doses, and is banned in Europe. Rats that breath in small amounts of ethylene oxide for two years lose the ability to make normal blood. Male and female rodents develop breast cancer, mouth bleeding, and nosebleeds. The US does not have the authority to ban because of trade deals set up with corporations, so the US and Canada don’t monitor levels in products. The FDA’s current position is that consumers should read labels and decide for themselves. Chemists with cancer, who have filed class-action suits, are barred from discussing their case with anyone, ever.
Many cosmetics contain placentas, obtained from hospitals, to create especially soft skin and hair. Placentas are packed with hormones. An increase in estrogen is linked with breast and reproductive cancers. In Texas, in 1990, Dr. Chandra Tiwary kept seeing black babies with breasts and public hair. He found a connection with hair cream that smoothes the babies’ hair and contains hormones, estriol, or placenta. When the parents stopped using the creams, the breasts went away. He wrote to the FDA in 1996 to file an adverse drug reaction report. He never got a reply.
Richard Clapp, in 2003, found a link between people who produce computer chips at IBM and cancers of the breast, bone marrow and kidney. He was threatened with lawsuits if he ever released his findings, and, under pressure from IBM’s lawyers, a major international journal withdrew its acceptance of Clapp’s research article.
Cell phones are connected to brain cancers. Several poorly conducted studies show no connection by monitoring only light-use clients. Tumours of the auditory nerve are three times more frequent in people who have used cell phones for more than a decade, and always on the side they favour. Radio frequency electromagnetic fields can penetrate 4–6 cm into the human brain. Wireless signals can affect the ways human brain cells communicate. Cells that can’t communicate well are prone to grow out of control. Studies of men who work with electromagnetic fields in radio and television or cell towers have a much greater risk of breast and brain cancer.
Nitrates in hotdogs and smoked meats get transformed by stomach acids to nitrosamines, a well-established potent cause of cancer.
In 1977, the FDA Chief Counsel, Richard Merrill, formally asked the US Attorney’s office to indict the producer of aspartame, GD Searle, for knowingly misrepresenting findings. In 1969 Searle’s own studies of aspartame in milk fed to seven monkeys resulted in one dead and five with severe epileptic seizures within one year. They further found that aspartame paired with MSG (monosodium glutamate) produces brain tumors in rats. In 1978, the methanol (wood alcohol) content of aspartame was 1,000 times greater than most foods under FDA control, which can lead to blindness and brain damage. In 1980, the FDA refused to approve aspartame. Then Searle CEO, Donald Rumsfeld, (current Secretary of Defense) called in some favours with the FDA, and aspartame was approved in 1981. Monsanto now owns Searle. All studies that found aspartame safe were sponsored by industry. Every independent study has found it to cause lymphomas, leukemias, tumors of the pelvis and ureter, and other organs in as small a dose as two diet sodas and a yogurt in a 130 pound person.
Nixon singled out the car as the worst polluter of the common resource, “the price of goods must be made to include the cost of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment.”
The Burden of Proof
- Animal research is ruled out. It’s suitable to prove a drug is harmless, but not for showing harm to people. If rodents get cancer from exposure, it’s not considered relevant to humans.
- A large percentage of specific cancers affecting people in a specific location is not enough to show harm.
- To show harm the specific chemical causing the harm has to be isolated from all else in the environment, which is impossible unless the cancer victim was raised in an isolated chamber.
- To collect damages, you have to prove that exposure caused you harm AND that the corporation in charge knew of the harm. This is why many corporations stop any research that might prove damaging. As long as they can say they didn’t know, they don’t have to pay. The onus is on the victim to prove knowledge.
- “The real difficulties of the field have been complicated by a stream of disinformation fueled by short-term economic interests of those who stand to profit from keeping matters unresolved. In the meantime, thousands and sometimes millions of people continue to be exposed to conditions that had been known decades earlier to be dangerous.”
- In an effort to quash public discussion, firms file a “slap suit” (strategic lawsuit against public participation- SLAPP) filed for the purpose of rattling people which forces them to spend time and money defending themselves.
If we cannot act to protect or prevent exposures to suspected cancer causes based on solid experimental reasoning, and if we insist on proof that humans have already been harmed, then we are treating people like experimental animals in a vast and largely uncontrolled study which is morally indefensible.
Cancer causes the development of too many white blood cells. Those who made it through poison gas attacks in WWI had far too few. The devastatingly low white blood cell counts first seen in survivors of mustard gas provided the basis for chemotherapy. By the 1930s, massive tumours were made to shrink in animal studies. Unfortunately, the chemicals used can also cause cancers.
Studies show that mammograms do not increase the survival rate of women under 50 as their breasts are too dense to feasibly find potential tumours. The additional radiation from the tests can increase the risk of getting breast cancer.
- In the 12th century, Moses Maimonides advised avoiding dusty cities and dirty air, and suggested eating chicken soup and garlic, and getting regular exercise.
- Hitler, who wanted the German people to be cancer-free, limited tobacco smoking, the use of white flour and sugar, and dyes and other industrial toxins. He also kept an organic garden of foods and medicines for the private use of German elites and soldiers. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers were permitted to touch the plants. He restricted freedoms of his people to smoke or eat poorly because the German people had a duty to be healthy.
- H. Leon Bradlow found what we eat or are exposed to early in life strongly affects the chances we will get cancer and how well we can survive cancer later in life.
- In Scotland, right now, studies are being done on diindolylmethane, a compound derived from cruciferae vegetables (cabbage, brussel sprouts, and broccoli).
- Extracts made from red wine and dark chocolate look promising in their ability to turn on good properties and turn off bad ones, and other alcohols and living in high traffic areasdo the opposite.
- Tuckfelt and Herberman suggest Vitamin D from sunshine or supplements helps.
- In Japan, studies have found positive results with Shitake mushrooms.
Snyder’s classroom connections:
Everything does NOT cause cancer. But many chemicals developed in the last 100 years do. And most of these chemicals are completely unnecessary to our survival. They could all be banned or highly regulated to create an almost cancer-free world. But they won’t be.
So what works? Consider other readings…
- The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard encourages us to reduce our consumption rate by insisting that most of the stuff we buy is harmful along the way, and we’ll likely throw it out soon anyway.
- Chris Turner in The Geography of Hope thinks that we can convince people to change by making environmental movements more appealing. We need to use the tools of marketing to convince people that environmentalism is sexy. He shows a few isolated areas of the world where this is working.
- But then in No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, by Tom Slee, he shows us why individual efforts will never work. People are too focused, wisely, on immediate gain instead of distant effects, and we all free-ride on the hope that other people will do right, so we can keep doing wrong. So, only governmental regulation of industry, price controls and control over location of stores, can stop the destruction of entire cities and the low wages of workers.
- Heat by George Monbiot is similar to Slee’s take but with the environment. We won’t ever choose to reduce consumption willingly. The government has to work worldwide with all other governments to ration our fuel use using an “icecap” debit card system.
- Alan Weisman, in The World Without Us, goes one step further to suggest a worldwide ban on more than one child produced per woman. Monbiot, Slee, and Weisman all think reducing private freedoms is the only method towards survival.
- But Naomi Klein, in Shock Doctrine, shows us how closely the government is tied to industry. The American government wants to deregulate all markets, and privatize all industry worldwide. They’re working through countries one at a time. The government will never stop any industry that’s profitable to them.
- Devra Davis takes a similar stance in this book on cancer insisting that the government is not the place to go to get regulations placed on harmful chemicals. People working in the government have too much to lose, personally, to willingly reduce profits.
- John Raulston Saul, in Collapse of Globalism, introduces the notion that everything’s in the process of a pivotal change that was precipitated by TRIPS, a system that makes it impossible for some people to get life-saving medicine. With many people dying, many people protested, unrelentingly, until corporations and governments had to back down.
- Klein also discusses the effects of mass protests against the Iraq invasion — the US has gone too far this time. And Davis agrees, with 30% of women and 50% of men confronting this illness in their lifetime, we are truly on the verge of a major breakthrough in the way industry and government must work. Almost every person or someone they know closely is affected by cancer. With this many people affected, people will being to protest en masse which will affect the government and corporations worldwide to change common practices.
Consider Nixon’s State of the Union Address in 1970, the year 20 million Americans attended Earth Day rallies around the country:
“In the next 10 years we shall increase our wealth by 50 percent. The profound question is: Does this mean we will be 50 percent richer in a real sense? Or does it mean that in the year 1980 the President standing here will look back on a decade in which 70 percent of our people were suffocated by smog, poisoned by water, and deafened by noise. The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations, for we still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”
The sudden increase in the planet was provoked by images that came back from the first moon landing, when people saw the magnificence of our ‘big blue marble.’
Corporations are now discovering that environmental routes pay off in the long run. The Harvard Business School adopted many technologies at a cost of $10 million to reduce electricity use, capture waste heat, and recycle rain, with a return on investment of more than 30%. But be wary of “greenwashing” — when products are made to appear environmental, but aren’t.
Davis’s book ends with a story from the Talmud:
A group of workers has been given a big, complicated job to do. They complain, “We do not have the right tools. The task is enormous. We will never be able to get it done.”
The rabbi replies, “It is not for you to complete the task. But you must begin.”
Our silence is approval.
But Chomsky understands that we’ve been conditioned to behave this way. We’re all complacent pawns in a giant experiment where we play the part of consumers being sold to the media for advertiser profit. How do we get beyond this brainwashing?
It’s not unknown what causes cancer. We know and can fight the lack of independent studies being conducted before chemicals are introduced. We can demand clean air and water, and safe working conditions worldwide. Air, water, and toxins in them know no boundaries. We can protest the concept that it’s the consumer’s fault for choosing an unsafe product. As Leonard says, it’s the government’s job to keep us safe. That’s what we pay them for.
But also consider these questions …
- How much control do we want the government to have?
- If they do remove products that harm us, what if they ban tobacco and alcohol as well? Can we pick and choose which products are regulated?
- What kind of government is necessary to make these kinds of reforms? What type of government was necessary to enforce a one-child policy or ban tobacco use in Germany?
- Which is more important, the quality of life or longevity? Can we be happy without toxins? Is a healthy life necessarily a happy life?
- Other thoughts……